Top 10 American Songs

Author: David M. Shribman

High Hopes
Everyone knows an ant can’t move a rubber tree plant, but a curious little bagatelle of a Frank Sinatra song making that point caught the attention of a nation, and then of its dashing young presidential candidate in 1960. With no moody torchlight bass, no beguiling lyrics, not even any reveries about the way you look tonight or about strangers in the night, exchanging glances, it became John F. Kennedy’s campaign song. This anthem about optimism (“High Hopes,” after all) sometimes included lyrics adapted for JFK: Everyone is voting for Jack/’Cause he’s got what all the rest lack/Everyone wants to back — Jack.

Over the Rainbow
This song was written for the 1939 production of Wizard of Oz and was performed by Judy Garland. It is likely the best-known movie song of all time. In the original version, the 16-year-old displays remarkable sophistication and range, and though she sings of a lullaby, she is really singing about an all-American dream, of a place where “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” She did not, of course, live a life where troubles melted like lemon drops, which makes the ballad even more poignant today than it was when she recorded it.

White Christmas
What could be more American than a Christmas song written by a Jewish composer that became the best-selling single in history? The explanation is in the delivery by Bing Crosby, who made the song famous, and in the American optimism inherent in the wish that “your days be merry and bright.” This song is a secular favorite and has been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, the Drifters, Dean Martin, Mitch Miller, Andy Williams, Kelly Clarkson and just about everyone else who has approached a microphone in a recording studio — and is a favorite even in tropical locations where treetops don’t glisten and children don’t listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.

Sweet Caroline
This best version of this song, performed by Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Waylon Jennings and hundreds of showering crooners, is by its author, Neil Diamond, who wrote it after being moved by a magazine cover portraying Caroline Kennedy. It was a sing-along favorite long before it became a sporting-venue classic, first in the eighth inning for the Red Sox at Boston’s Fenway Park (Diamond has performed it live there) and then for the University of Pittsburgh at Heinz Field — and finally across the country. Its reprise line (“Good times never seemed so good”) is a crowd favorite, and so is the pulsating rhythm of “Warm, touchin’ warm/Reachin’ out, touchin’ me, touchin’ you.” As for the reason behind its popularity, Where it began,/I can’t begin to knowin’/But then I know it’s growing strong.

Notre Dame Fight Song
Technically called the “Victory March,” this is the most recognizable college song in the country, surpassing Yale’s “Boola Boola,” Michigan’s “The Victors” and “On Wisconsin” by virtue of the numberless high schools that have adopted its tune and adapted its words — at least four in Ohio, plus Swampscott High School in Massachusetts, where the line “Cheer, cheer for old Swampscott High” is set against the rhyming line “You bring the whiskey, I’ll bring the rye.” In its real, South Bend form, the phrases “wake up the echoes” and “shake down the thunder” are employed as allusions in countless news accounts and essays. The tune never grows old, unless you are dining at the Linebacker Lounge, where it can become Muzak to your ears.

God Bless America
We have an official national anthem and we have a beloved national anthem, and “God Bless America” is the latter, enshrined in our hearts and sung in many American ballparks between the two halves of the seventh inning, in Philadelphia before Flyers home hockey games, occasionally in Buffalo, New York, and, when U.S. teams are on the ice, in Ottawa, Canada, too. Written by Irving Berlin and indelibly identified with Kate Smith, “God Bless America” is as close as we get to a secular hymn, speaking of God standing behind America, guiding her “through the night with a light from above,” and in fact the introductory verse speaks of it as a “solemn prayer.”

Satin Doll
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn combined in 1953 to create this American jazz classic that has been performed by Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson and Ella Fitzgerald. With lyrics written later by Johnny Mercer, “Satin Doll” has become an American standard, a celebration of a love object who’s “nobody’s fool so I’m playing it cool as can be.” The Nancy Wilson version features a nice swing element to it plus a lovely, soaring interlude.

Happy Birthday
No song is sung more often, nor to more anticipation, than this one, probably dating to 19th century Kentucky. Translated into dozens of languages, its lyrics are subject to many adaptations, some inquiring how old the birthday figure really is, some making allusions to humans’ simian origins, some simply adding “cha cha cha.” In whatever version, this is the one song every American knows.

We Shall Overcome
This song, with gospel origins and overtones, was popularized by Pete Seeger and made part of the American canon by the civil-rights movement, which, in recognition of its power as an admonition, adopted it as its theme song, or its secular psalm. Many artists, black and white, have recorded it, and many marchers, black and white, have sung it. Joan Baez performed it at the 1963 March on Washington, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted from it in his last Sunday sermon. In the wake of Bloody Sunday at Selma, Alabama, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed Congress to urge passage of the Voting Rights Bill and told the American people, “And we shall overcome” — a rhetorical masterstroke that left King in tears.

The Quest
Best known as “The Impossible Dream,” this song, from the Broadway hit and movie Man of La Mancha, has been a brawny assertion of determination — and a joyous celebration. It provided the emotional soundtrack for two improbable baseball triumphs, the Boston Red Sox of 1967 and the New York Mets of 1969. Its lyrics and theme have been employed by George McGovern and Honda automobiles, and the song was sung at the funeral of Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Patty Griffin, Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra have sung it — and all of us have hummed it.