Sunday, July 14, 2013

National Days, a Mystery Song, & Gordon Sinclair

Many people aren't in the mood for a "rah-rah" American post this morning, following the Zimmerman verdict. I like what Ta-Nehisi Coates has to say a lot. Though our legal system is flawed,  it is still one of the great ones in the world.

I know today is what the English speaking countries call Bastille Day, commemorating the famous storming thereof in 1789. Wiki says the French don't refer to the fortress at all. For them it is La Fete Nationale, or Le quatorze juillet, and they are celebrating the whole idea of the birth of the Republic.

But I missed Canada Day, July 1, celebrating the anniversary of 1867 when the British American colonies  Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada became the country Canada within the British Empire. And Canada Day would have been the perfect time for this post, except I didn't yet have the knowledge I needed yet. Hence segueing from the French.

As an aside, I'd like to say "hi" and "thank you" to the many Canadian readers of this blog. I'm looking at you, Moncton, NB; Vancouver, BC; Montreal, Saint-Eustache, Chateauguay, Quebec; and Ottawa & Toronto, Ontario.

Memories of a National Embarrassment and a Song
The Guardian started publishing its series of revelations about the NSA spying in June 6, and the scandal unfolded throughout the month, with Edward Snowden being charged by U.S. federal prosecutors with espionage and theft of government property on June 14.

The revelation of this spying is another in a long line of disappointments in our government. My mind harkened back to Watergate, which I experienced as a child. I was not a budding news junkie, but I knew something bad for the country had happened.

And that memory was tied to a dim but nagging memory of a novelty patriotic song. Not really a song, more like speaking a song with some music. I thought it had something to do with the energy crisis, and my impression was it was a counterbalance to the badness of Watergate.

One line that stuck with me was something like, "do we hide our scandals? No, we put them on the front page for all to see." And I vaguely remembered "America the Beautiful" playing at the end.

So I started asking friends and family of a certain age with, prompting them with my little shards of factoids, and


It was the strangest thing that nobody, even people with big knowledge of popular music, had even the vaguest notion of this song.

Could I have made it up? It seemed so real.

Mystery Solved: "The Americans"
So I started googling: 1970s, patriotic song, watergate, and all permutations.

Got lots of hits, but none of them were it: "Proud to be an American." Dickie Goodman parody songs. John Wayne speaking different songs.

Then I asked my brother, and he found it.

It was a record of an actual Canadian broadcast by a commentator named Gordon Sinclair. (Born in Toronto in 1900, there is lots of information at the site for the Gordon Sinclair Foundation, which gives yearly journalism awards.)

On June 5, 1973, on his usual CFRB radio show, he lambasted "the world" for not appreciating "The Americans," which is what the commentary came to be known as, and for not offering help whenever they were in crisis.

For him, it was just one show of thousands, but it took on a life of its own.  It was as though one of Any Roony's 60 Minutes segments went seriously viral.

There are various versions about just how it happened. One is that Sinclair had read in the paper that morning that the American Red Cross was bankrupt, and he was disgusted that no country was stepping in to help, and so his diatribe.

Anchor Bryon MacGregor then read a transcript of the show on CKLW in Ontario (also reaching Detroit), and U.S. News & World Reports published a full transcript.

Demand for a copy of the speech was so high a Canadian record label released it with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as soundtrack, and an American label with "America the Beautiful."

From Wiki:  "The Americans (A Canadian's Opinion)" went to #24 on the Billboard Hot 100, making the 73-year-old Sinclair the 2nd-oldest living person ever to have a Billboard U.S."

All the ones on YouTube are the Canadian version, so I still haven't actually heard the song as I did in the 1970s. It ran on AM radio in its heyday, which is why I heard it so many times.

The line about Watergate that I remembered is

You talk about scandals and the Americans put theirs right in the store window for everyone to look at.

When the Americans get out of this bind ... 

They will come out of this thing with their flag high.

It was odd and eerie to hear that strong, distinctive voice again on the YouTube uploads. I have no emotional connection to the piece or to Sinclair, but I had such a clear idea of it in my head, with no resonance from any one I asked, and then it was found. I had not understood the song as a kid, and clearly didn't get that it was a Canadian talking about US. There's lots more complexity behind the politics of what he's talking about (what were we really doing in Nicaragua?), but you can appreciate some of the big picture he's talking about.

Sinclair later remarked he was tired of the phenomenon of this one piece, and regretted the errors that were in it, but said he stood behind the perspective. He died in 1984.

Here is a transcript and the Canadian version of the record.

"The Americans: A Canadian's Opinion" 

The United States dollar took another pounding on German, French and British exchanges this morning, hitting the lowest point ever known in West Germany.

It has declined there by 41% since 1971 and this Canadian thinks it is time to speak up for the Americans as the most generous and possibly the least-appreciated people in all the earth.

As long as sixty years ago, when I first started to read newspapers), I read of floods on the Yellow River and the Yangtse. Who rushed in with men and money to help?

The Americans did.

They have helped control floods on the Nile, the Amazon, the Ganges and the Niger. Today, the rich bottom land of the Misssissippi is under water and no foreign land has sent a dollar to help.

Germany, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Britain and Italy, were lifted out of the debris of war by the Americans who poured in billions of dollars and forgave other billions in debts. None of those countries is today paying even the interest on its remaining debts to the United States.

When the franc was in danger of collapsing in 1956, it was the Americans who propped it up and their reward was to be insulted and swindled on the streets of Paris. I was there. I saw it.

When distant cities are hit by earthquakes, it is the United States that hurries into help... Managua Nicaragua is one of the most recent examples. So far this spring, 59 American communities have been flattened by tornadoes. Nobody has helped. The Marshall Plan .. the Truman Policy .. all pumped billions upon billions of dollars into discouraged countries. Now, newspapers in those countries are writing about the decadent war-mongering Americans. I'd like to see one of those countries that is gloating over the erosion of the United States dollar build its own airplanes. Come on... let's hear it!

Does any other country in the world have a plane to equal the Boeing Jumbo Jet, the Lockheed Tristar or the Douglas 107? If so, why don't they fly them? Why do all international lines except Russia fly American planes?

Why does no other land on earth even consider putting a man or women on the moon? You talk about Japanese technocracy and you get radios. You talk about German technocracy and you get automobiles. You talk about American technocracy and you find men on the moon, not once, but several times ... and safely home again.

You talk about scandals and the Americans put theirs right in the store window for everyone to look at.  Even the draft dodgers are not pursued and hounded. They are here on our streets, most of them ... unless they are breaking Canadian laws..are getting American dollars from Ma and Pa at home to spend here.

When the Americans get out of this bind ... as they will... who could blame them if they said 'the hell with the rest of the world'. Let someone else buy the Israel bonds, Let someone else build or repair foreign dams or design foreign buildings that won't shake apart in earthquakes.

When the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central went broke, nobody loaned them an old caboose. Both are still broke. I can name to you 5,000 times when the Americans raced to the help of other people in trouble. Can you name me even one time when someone else raced to the Americans in trouble?

I don't think there was outside help even during the San Francisco earthquake. Our neighbours have faced it alone and I am one Canadian who is damned tired of hearing them kicked around.

They will come out of this thing with their flag high. And when they do, they are entitled to thumb their nose at the lands that are gloating over their present troubles. I hope Canada is not one of these. But there are many smug, self-righteous Canadians.

And finally, the American Red Cross was told at its 48th Annual meeting in New Orleans this morning that it was broke. This year's disasters .. with the year less than half-over… has taken it all and nobody...but nobody... has helped.

* * *

Wiki said that it was brought back after 9/11, but I never heard it then, which is surprising, being one of the few people of my generation who had remembered it at all.