America, Why I Love Her

John Wayne

RCA, 1973

REVIEW BY: Roland Fratzl

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/26/2003

John Wayne is a name that rings loud and clear across the American cultural landscape. More than just an actor and celebrity, he was a true legend and icon. There are likely very few people in America, if not the world, who don't know who he was, even if they have never seen any of the countless movies that he starred in. Not a strong character actor, he chose for the most part to play roles that reflected his own personality as a highly patriotic and moral man, which connected with audiences to great success and within a relatively short time he became America's cultural ambassador, personifying all the wonderful qualities that make the country what it is.

Born in 1907, John Wayne began his film career in 1926, and from that point on appeared in at least one film every year for a grand total of about two hundred films, in virtually all of which he held the lead role, until his final silver screen appearance exactly fifty years later, in1976. Such a tremendous output is unmatched by any other major or minor Hollywood actor, and throughout that lengthy career his popularity never waned (awful pun intended), appearing in dozens of cinema classics that are still highly regarded today. Unfortunately, a lifetime of heavy smoking took its toll, and John Wayne died of cancer in 1979 at the age of 72.

This being a music review site however, I will now turn my attention toward the one album that Wayne recorded. (For more information about his career and a list of his films, follow this link.)

In 1970, Wayne began to record the spoken word album America, Why I Love Her, reciting the unabashed patriotism in fellow actor John Mitchum's poetry. At the time, the United States was embroiled in the controversial and divisive war in Vietnam, and its own shores had been awash with civil unrest for a number of years. Wayne, always an outspoken conservative who was fiercely proud of his country, took every opportunity to promote the values that he believed made America the greatest country on Earth. This spoken-word album was the method he used to directly channel those undiluted feelings during a time in which he felt his country had lost its way.

A cynic might scoff and arrogantly dismiss this album as nothing but a tasteless exercise in blind, jingoistic patriotism that borders on propaganda. After having listened to it, I can easily understand that point of view, but that is also unnecessarily close-minded and even naïve.

On the cusp of my first listen, I knew what to expect from a spoken-word John Wayne album, and believe me, it did not disappoint. Over the course of ten tracks, the album is practically a shopping list that systematically recites everything that makes the United States wonderful, powerful, unique, the envy of the world, etc, etc, etc. There are songs dedicated to America's natural beauty, its ingenious political system with its checks and balances, the symbolism of its flag, its fallen heroes, and the tenacity of its people. The rampant optimism and over-the-top sentimentality can be rather overwhelming at certain points.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But you know what? For the most part, it works very well. While extremely sappy at times, the mainly orchestral background music and large choir creates the appropriate tone for the poetic content, liberally using the melodies of much-loved traditional standards in a variety of dynamic arrangements ranging from epic bombast to subtle, mellow passages. These shifts keep the tracks interesting and do a wonderful job of underscoring the lyrical mood set by the piece in question. Examples of this would be the anthemic military march in "The Pledge Of Allegiance," the melancholy strings of "Why I Love Her," the contemporary folk-rock of "Face The Flag," and the old-time country tinge of "The Good Things."

Of course, the focus of attention is mainly on John Wayne, and he delivers a wonderful performance. Despite the fact that the album took three years to complete due to his ongoing health problems and hectic filming schedule, his speech is full of confidence, clearly reciting the poems in his trademark laid-back drawl. He sounds completely natural and at ease, never once giving in to dramatics. Like a grizzly old uncle, his voice exudes a warmth and wisdom and passion for his subject that really brings the material to life.

For an album that could have been rife with embarrassing missteps (which is, I admit, what I was fully expecting), there are surprisingly few. Only two moments had me cringing. One is during the track "Why Are You Marching, Son?", when Wayne pays tribute to the brave soldiers who gave their lives for America by specifically mentioning wars and battle sites, erroneously including a line referring to the liberation of South Vietnam from its communist invaders, even though by the time this album was released in 1973 that would clearly not be the outcome of that particular conflict. The second embarrassing misstep is "An American Boy Grows Up," a fictionalized account written from a gushing fatherly perspective about the coming of age of his boy, a narrative that suffers heavily under the idealized clichés of making the high school football team and volunteering for the army. Even Ward and June Cleaver would struggle to sit through this one with a straight face.

Those minor misgivings aside, the album won me over with its absolute sincerity and good intentions and lack of condescension. It is obvious that both Wayne and Mitchum held a deep love for their nation, and that passion comes through in spades on America, Why I Love Her. One may not agree with their doggedly patriotic stance, but it is impossible not to respect their undying faith and conviction.

Themes of honor, strength, decency, morality, freedom, justice, equality, and sacrifice are central to the album, and are repeated frequently. These are universal and timeless themes, which keep the content relevant and fresh, particularly in today's political climate. In "The Hyphen," Wayne calls for an end to racial divisions, for all Americans to stand as one. In other tracks, the ideas of freedom, individuality and tolerance of dissent are repeatedly championed. This is a very powerful message that needs to be revisited in today's America, where an environment of fear and a gradual tightening of freedom of expression seem to be taking place. How could anyone seriously deny the benefits of what Wayne was saying here?

Fortunately, since its release on CD in November 2001 as a reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, people have rediscovered this album (it even charted as high as #18 on Billboard's internet album chart in 2002).

I was fully prepared to hate America, Why I Love Her. The whole concept seemed to smack of contrived, tactless nationalism in a corny presentation, with none other than America's biggest patriot and icon leading the proceedings. I was wrong. The album serves as a wake-up call to those who take things for granted, and the ideas contained within certainly are important to remember for any citizen. And it doesn't just apply to America - as a Junior American (i.e. Canadian), I feel that these themes are equally relevant in my own country, and should be anywhere else where people are free.

Some will no doubt balk at the glorified idealism and relentless optimism embodied here to the very core, but should we not constantly aspire for greatness? I find the ideas promoted here to be inspirational, and they will stir the emotions of all but the most hopelessly jaded listener. Just ask yourself - is this approach really more naïve than viewing everything in life with skepticism and suspicion?

As John Wayne would say: "I reckon not, pilgrim."

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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