A Pulitzer prize-winning biographer, a Grammy Award-winning country-music star, lavish illustrations on glossy, coated stock: It all makes for such an impressive package that the contents of “Songs of America,” though fitfully compelling, are somewhat disappointing. Author Jon Meacham and singer Tim McGraw, neighbors in Nashville, Tenn., are dismayed by the “ferocious partisanship” that divides Americans “as rarely, if ever, before.” (More than the Civil War?) They hope that recalling parts of our musical heritage—from the 1760s to the Obama administration—can help bridge some of our differences. “Nativism, xenophobia, cultural populism, and broad political fear,” Mr. Meacham concedes, “have shaped the republic from the beginning and likely always will.” Still, a major impetus behind “Songs of America”—and the man the authors hold largely responsible for exacerbating our differences today, though never named—is President Obama's successor.
An introductory note explains that the text of “Songs of America” draws occasionally on Mr. Meacham's previous books and articles on U.S. history and disclaims any attempt “to be encyclopedic.” Stitched together in such fashion and studded with Mr. McGraw's thoughts about individual songs, the book is perhaps inevitably uneven. Mr. Meacham plucks captivating details from his sources: the $405.90 cost, in 1813, of the original Star-Spangled Banner plus a smaller flag to be flown over Fort McHenry during stormy weather; FDR's initial intention to make “Anchors Aweigh” rather than “Happy Days Are Here Again” his campaign song. Some chapters, particularly the one covering the Civil War, which gives Frederick Douglass the first and last words, are artfully organized and eloquent. But others are a hodge-podge. The rise and revolutionary impact of Elvis Presley in the 1950s and early 1960s, for instance, are described after an account of the Vietnam War in the late '60s and 1970s.