The lyrics to Ben Arnold’s “My America” reflect “a concern, a realistic concern” for the current state of our country, how we got here and a belief that, deep down, we’re not that far apart.
Released last week, “My America” is a modern folk-rock anthem in waiting, drawing inspiration from the wise writings of our country’s great thinkers and following the lineage of folk pioneers Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, who raised their voice in difficult uncertain times, providing a much-needed balm for a wounded nation. The video, directed by Laura Kellogg (with photos and graphics by Andy Bilinski), intersplices timely 2020 imagery with footage of Arnold recording the song.
“It’s the everyday feeling of walking outside and waking up to a new day,” the Philadelphia singer says. “Then the invisible wall of fog hits you in the face and everything’s different. All the things you saw every day in the normal time just seem distorted.”
Out on the island there’s a lady I know
Who’s holding the torch at the gates of my home
In the heart of the city, stores open and close
But I’ve started to notice the cracks in the road
And I still see tall buildings that reach for the sky
And cool emerald forests of snow-covered pines
And I wave to my neighbor when he passes by
But it just don’t feel like my America
Though it’s not mentioned specifically, the country’s flag is a perfect visual for the song’s meaning, he says. “It’s the weathered fading of the flag that’s in need of cleaning and restoration. Not just respect, but responsible and thoughtful reimagination. That’s where I was coming from when I wrote the song.”
Arnold remains hopeful for our future, confident we’re not “nearing the end of our rope” when “kids in the schoolyard hang on to their hope,” and we can see the beauty of our country with its “tall buildings that reach for the sky” and “cool emerald forests of snow-covered pine.”
“The idea of America is infinite in its potential, amazing in its concept and magical when we get it right. We can’t expect everybody to operate on the same thought waves. But we have room to compromise. I’m willing to do so on my end with things I disagree with. But I’m willing to speak up with my side of that argument.”
“I’d like to think this represents what people have in their everyday thoughts. It’s not an aggressive song, but it’s not passive. It’s a big picture through a small lens. All subtle observations and not based on political anger.”
The song began pre-pandemic, over a year ago, while Arnold was waiting to perform at an in-the-round type show. “It was a moment. I wrote it outside while strumming my guitar. I had the idea and went in my car and laid down the basic structure on a voice memo.”
The Philadelphia-based songwriter recorded the song with long-time friend and producer Barrie Maguire, original bass player for the Wallflowers and co-producer of Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily and several Amos Lee records. The tracking sessions were essentially a two-person operation, with Arnold handling acoustic guitar and vocals and Maguire, “a massively talented human being,” playing the rest of the instruments, including a fiery pedal steel part.
Maguire and Arnold created a wonderful, droning tension-filled bridge, what he calls a musical “immigrant’s jig,” where he sings of seeing “big things change right in front of my eyes” and most telling, in today’s fake news climate, “even the rain, someone questioning why.” Tracking for the song was done quickly, with Arnold adding a few post-pandemic observations and massaging a few of the lyrics to fit vocal phrasing.
“My America” has a quiet urgency that makes it the modern-day flip side of “Eve Of Destruction,” written by P.F. Sloan and originally made famous by Barry McGuire (no relation to Arnold’s producer) in 1965.
Arnold’s music career includes several excellent solo albums anchored by his soulful vocals, guitar and keyboard playing. He’s also logged time in the critically acclaimed, harmony-driven Philly supergroup 4 Way Street and his current band, US Rails, which has built a substantial and dedicated fan base in Europe.
Arnold was on ‘a fateful tour’ in Europe with US Rails, playing what he feels were their best shows musically and attendance-wise, when the pandemic hit in March, forcing them to abandon the bulk of the 40-day tour. The last show in Germany was a bit spooky as the weight of the impending closings became serious enough of a concern for the band to wonder if they would make it home.
“I went into a pretty dark place for a couple months after we came home. A lot of people said, ‘you must be writing a new record now.’ No, I wasn’t. I’m listening to NPR, reading and stressing out on my lack of income. But right now, I’m feeling the juice and writing more.”
Though he doesn’t consider himself a political performer, the years of touring overseas have shaped his newer material and given him confidence to incorporate more political elements into his writing. “I’ve always had a degree of it and put a little something in there across my records. But now I’ve become better at distilling my thoughts.”
Arnold has seen firsthand the change in the political climate overseas. “I’m grateful, thankful and lucky to have been able to do all the traveling I’ve done and hear so many different perspectives. Over time, I realized how people in other countries were changing the way they see America from the outside.”
“As artists we are magnets for people who are like-minded and for people looking for someone to spout “shut up and sing.” On the small stages I’ve been on, I consider it a responsibility to say what I want if I feel it’s right.”
“Europeans tend to dive deeper into what is going on inside America than some of our citizens. They delve deeper into the issues and consequences. It’s a little less black and white as it is here in the States. It’s not a matter of pro-NRA/anti-NRA or pro-choice/pro-life. It’s not that simple. It’s more about ‘how is it going to reverberate around the world?’”
Still, Arnold remains positive in his outlook and the deeper meaning in “My America.” “There’s no overt patriotism whatsoever in the song. But I think it’s the ultimate in patriotism.”
“When I think of ‘my America,’ I’m not thinking necessarily of the country at large. I’m thinking of how I feel on a day to day basis when I’m interacting with people. It has a lot of room to grow and there’s massive potential. We have to take note of everything we say and do and say it with intention. And be willing to learn from mistakes. I’ve made mistakes my whole life. There’s no reason why we can’t make mistakes. We’re still so young.”