Can great songs bring us together?
WASHINGTON — On perfectly beautiful days such as these, it is impossible to conceive of conflict.
How, I’ve often wondered, do soldiers muster the psychic energy necessary to inflict and suffer injury on an autumn or spring day when sitting in a breezy sun shaft is so much more compelling —and sensible?
Within this same daydream, I’ve often thought that piping music into areas of conflict would be more effective than daisy cutters. How does one decide to decimate civilians with lethal gas while listening to the Drifters singing “Up on the Roof”? Or “Under the Boardwalk”?
It is impossible to hear such tunes and sustain a bad mood much less a bloodbath. Try staying mad while singing. Go on, do it. “When this old world starts getting me down ...”
OK, fine, so you can’t sing. But you should. It’s good for you. We start out in life skipping and singing and before long we’re shuffling and whining. And picking fights, pillaging and, less dramatically, drawing partisan lines in cement. That’s working out so well.
Enter Robert Davi, the actor best known as drug lord Franz Sanchez in “License to Kill,” who apparently has been visiting the same daydream and has decided that America can become reunited through song, specifically the Great American Songbook. He’s convinced that Americans singing along with “Rainy Day” or “Summer Wind” will be more inclined to view their neighbor as a fellow American rather than an ideological foe.
But first, who knew Davi could sing? Who knew that he could sing better than nearly anyone? In a CD released Monday called “Davi Sings Sinatra: On the Road to Romance,” the opera-trained Davi is alarmingly good. He doesn’t try to sound like Sinatra, though he comes close enough that you sometimes have to pause to remember that it’s Davi.
Of greater immediate interest is Davi’s observation that music from the Great American Songbook corresponded to an era of national unity and pride that he thinks can be resurrected and reignited.
The Songbook, for post-Sinatra generations, refers to a canon of songs, mostly from musical theater and Hollywood musicals, between the 1920s and 1960. The composers most often cited include George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen. A list of singers who have popularized these composers’ works include Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, Bobby Short, Johnny Mathis and, of course, Sinatra.
Several contemporary country and rock artists also have recorded tunes from the Songbook, but Davi may be the first to tie a collection to a political purpose. He refers to the Songbook as “America’s Shakespeare” and the golden age of American music, which helped the world fall in love with our country.
“During my parents’ time while our country faced many difficulties, this music helped it glow with promise and optimism,” he says in the liner notes. “It reminded them that our country was a place where dreams came true, and inspired people from all over the world to find for themselves the magic that was America. ... My humble mission as a singer, and interpreter of this Songbook, is to help reinvigorate the spirit of America, the spirit that makes it the greatest country in the world.”
Either Davi is a savvy marketer or a great American — or both. They’re not mutually exclusive. But he is certainly right that these songs once united a nation during tougher times than now. Boomers, for whom these songs were background music in childhood, traded the songbook for rock ’n’ roll. And now a boomer wants to bring it back.
Before Elton John breaks in with “Circle of Life,” we note that the healing power of music is hardly a new idea. From ancient times to the present, from the mosh pit to the choir loft, human beings have sought to express and heal themselves through music. There is something about singing in unison that elevates the spirit, but singing is also good for the body. It improves circulation and lung power. Singing traditional songs to people with dementia helps them relax and engage. Lullabies soothe the crankiest babies.
Davi may not have the world on a string, but he may be on to something. In the wee small hours of the morning, nice ’n’ easy, Congress could take a trip to the moon on gossamer wings. This would be too marvelous for words.