Initially posted 9/11/2011.
Country music is often stereotyped as a redneck musical genre and it certainly has moments to confirm that. Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” tapped into a revenge mentality with its “we’ll put a boot in your ass” line. However, Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” was the song which best captured the overall sadness evoked by the average American. Sure, there were plenty of people who immediately wanted to throttle someone, but Jackson tapped into the emotion of those who just wanted to hold their loved ones close.
As a Jersey boy raised in the shadow of New York City, Bruce Springsteen made a career of tapping into Americana with tales of teen angst, blue collar workers, and a celebration of where one was born. His entire album The Rising was written as a tribute for 9/11. It included the song “My City of Ruins” which was written prior to 9/11, but took on immense power as a commentary on post-9/11 New York City when performed for the television special America: A Tribute to Heroes.
However, by the end of the day September 11, 2001, Springsteen’s cover of “We Shall Overcome” was the one plastered across the news. This protest song has been covered by many, but took on a new poignancy through Springsteen’s reading of it in the context of a country suffering profound devastation.
In 2009, “My City of Ruins” sadly took on relevance again when its words seemed to be about New Orleans and the horror of Hurricane Katrina. Vedder performed the song for the Kennedy Center Honors as Springsteen looked on. Much like a visibly moved Springsteen, it is hard not to get choked up as one considers the song in the context of America’s two worst tragedies of the 21st century.
Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On” has long been an anthem for pondering the state of the world. An all-star version of the song was recorded prior to 9/11 with the intent of benefiting AIDS programs in Africa. Bono, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani, Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, Destiny’s Child, Wyclef Jean, and Backstreet Boys were among the artists featured on the remake. When the song was released in October, a portion of the proceeds were also given to the American Red Cross’ fund for 9/11.
I wish I could remember the context, but soon after the musical tributes starting flowing, I remember someone taking an unnecessary shot at Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit. If memory serves, the person was reflecting on who would be appropriate to tap into the pain and anguish Americans were feeling and slammed Durst as a musician no one could take seriously. With an assist from the Goo Goo Dolls’ Johnny Reznik, Durst proved otherwise on this Pink Floyd cover. At times the line “wish you were here” sounds like a memorial for the fallen. There’s a moment in the performance, though, when Durst looks straight into the camera and seemingly sings the line directly to Osama bin Laden as a dare to show his face.
Sure, it made a political statement, but even the most hard-nosed anti-gay right winger would have to think twice if they heard this song. Etheridge powerfully reminds us that Mark Bingham, one of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, was gay. As one of the heroes who attacked the hijackers on the plane seemingly bound for the White House, was his heroic effort any less than that of his heterosexual counterparts?
Paul McCartney was sitting on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City when the planes hit the Twin Towers. He wrote the song “Freedom” the next day in response. He commented in an interview that he wrote the song as a sort of “We Shall Overcome”. He explained that the song’s notion of fighting for freedom tapped into the idea that an immigrant coming to America was saying, “Don’t mess with my rights, buddy. Because I’m now free.” WK
I’ve never read anything to confirm this suspicion, but I suspect this song was originally written as a tribute to Kevin Gilbert. He was a little known singer/songwriter and musician (one of my personal favorites) who was part of the collective who brought Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club to the world. The pair dated and parted bitterly with more than a few fingers pointing at Crow that she was taking credit for more work than what she really did. This song could be interpreted as regret for how that relationship soured and sadness that Gilbert had died (he passed away in 1996). Of course, those feelings of pain and sadness also made for a fitting 9/11 tribute.
Todd Beamer was one of the passengers on Flight 93 who stormed the cockpit, attacking the hijackers and foiling their initial plans. His final known words were “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll!” The phrase became a battle cry for Americans ready to fight back against terrorism. Neil Young turned it into a song on his Are You Passionate? album released in November of 2011.
Bowie opened the October 20, 2001 Concert for New York City with his own appropriately themed “Heroes” paired with a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”. The concert celebrated the police officers and fire fighters and other heroes who put their lives on the line to respond to the tragedy.
Donny Hathaway recorded this song for his 1973 album Extension of a Man. Over the years, it became an R&B standard covered by many artists. When Spike Lee used it for the film Malcolm X, it took on new meaning as a black anthem. When Alicia Keys, then one of the hottest new talents around, covered it for America: A Tribute to Heroes it became a message of hope for peace.
Wyclef Jean performed another of the powerful covers for America: A Tribute to Heroes with his take on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”. Rita Marley, said her husband was already facing his own mortality when he wrote the song in 1979 after just being diagnosed with cancer. He based the song on a 1937 speech by Marcus Garvey which called for people to emancipate themselves from mental slavery.
Hiatt wrote this song in the days after 9/11, but had mixed feelings about recording it. It took ten years before he felt comfortable, finally putting it on his 2011 Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns set. It is marked by a powerful video which shows New York’s fire and police departments responding.
Links to More 9/11 Songs:
- Billboard From Bruce to Paul, 10 Unforgettable 9/11 Concert Moments by Jason Newman (9/9/11)
- TheWrap.com Springsteen to Alan Jackson: Top 10 Tunes about 9/11 by Steve Pond (9/7/11)
- Metromix Denver Top 22 Songs about 9/11