The Nields — a tremendous act that has toured with everyone from 10,000 Maniacs, James Taylor, to Indigo Girls — have a new record coming out on Jan. 31. As part of the release, they have reworked “America The Beautiful” to reflect current times. Additionally, they have friends singing on it including Dar Williams, Chris Smither, Vance Gilbert, Peter Mulvey, Ben Demerath, their own children, and a youth choir.
Nerissa Nields (one half of the band as the other is her sister, Katryna) penned an entry about the current political climate, the new lyrics, and what this song means to her, exclusive to American Songwriter.
Here, is Nerissa in her own words:
I have always loved “America the Beautiful” and wished it were our national anthem. The song is lush, singable, poetically powerful, and inclusive. While the term “brotherhood” is dated (we prefer “And crown thy good in neighborhoods”), the sentiment is an explicit invitation for all of us to treat each other like family.
I have always particularly loved the verse that contains the lyrics, “America! America! God mend thine every flaw/Confirm thy soul in self-control/Thy liberty in law,” because is it so humble, so…well, so self-controlled. I feel the author’s voice here, authentically female, gently admonishing, believing the wayward can suit up and fly right.
Katharine Lee Bates taught college and was a social activist. If you google her picture, she looks like the kind of person who is not afraid to tell a bully what’s what. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” on the other hand, is hard for most people to sing, with its huge range and complex harmonic construction. Its theme is bellicose, and one of its verses (almost never sung anymore for obvious reasons) contains the lyrics “No refuge could save/ the hireling and slave/ from the terror of flight/ or the gloom of the grave.” In our own times, it’s been contaminated by controversy, with many refusing to sing it –– taking a knee, literally or figuratively. Compare the bald pride of “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” to the gratitude and awe about the land’s intrinsic gifts (spacious skies, purple mountains majesty) and the wish for its citizens to seek our better angels, to be noble, kind and humble.
My sister Katryna and I have been performing as part of our folk-rock band The Nields for almost thirty years. We have always had a political bend, as we grew up inside the Beltway of the nation’s capital. Our mother was a history teacher, and our father was a lawyer involved in high-profile government cases. More importantly, they fell in love at a Weavers’ concert in 1961, and we were raised on the music of activists and hopeful dreamers of the 1960s. When Katryna and I decided to make our living as musicians, we knew that we wanted to bring the hope and connection we experienced at Pete Seeger concerts into our shows and our songwriting. I am a big believer in art for art’s sake, but the music that most moves me is the kind that feels like it was written to open the hearts and minds of listeners, to inspire them to join in, sing along, and perhaps begin to live with greater purpose.
In my little church way out in the hills of the Massachusetts Berkshires the Sunday before the Thanksgiving of 2016, the minister, Stephen Philbrick, said, “Nothing has changed, from Plymouth Rock to Standing Rock.” We were all reeling from the election and this new upside-down world we suddenly inhabited. The fact that a minority of the population had elected someone with no experience, seemingly no respect for the basic institutions of government nor the principles of democracy, and a friend to dictators and autocrats seemed fantastical—something out of a dystopian novel. The decision of the electoral college felt like a betrayal of the values on which this country was built. Where I live––in the People’s Republic of Western Massachusetts––there was an aura of death everywhere, people grabbing each other and hugging as they do at a funeral. But it is the job of the writer, the poet, the folksinger, to speak to the times. It is our job to put words to the emotions our friends felt that month. Our poet/minister was doing this in his sermon. So while he spoke, I grabbed my pen and journal and started scribbling the lyrics that the minister’s line inspired:
O beautiful for grace bestowed
On our unworthy heads
When we the people don’t respect
What our forefathers pledged
Oh let us keep our word
From Plymouth Rock to Standing Rock
The voice of justice heard.
I have the privilege of being invited to sing a song during offertory at our little church—we are so informal and weird that there is no cross anywhere in sight, and our minister never went to seminary—when I called him a poet, I was being literal. He’s that, and a shepherd, and that’s the sum total of his resumé. After the sermon and before the offertory, I found the chords to “America the Beautiful” in a hymnal and scribbled them down on top of the lyrics I’d just written. When Hal and Nan passed the collection plates, I stood up with my guitar and tried to encapsulate what the minister had just preached.
Katryna and I began singing the new lyrics –– adding more –– getting the audience to sing along to the song most everyone knew by heart. In the early years of the new administration, our fans felt the way we did—as if there were no more grown-ups left to take care of us; as if we were the grown-ups now. It’s not like I ever fully trusted government—what left-leaning folksinger does? Weren’t we all trained to question authority? Didn’t we all see what the House Un-American Activities Committee had done to Pete Seeger? Still, I love the flag. I honor those who served our country, whether on the battlefield or in the bureaucratic offices of Washington DC, a few miles where Katryna and I grew up. At our childhood church in suburban Virginia, Katryna’s Sunday school teacher worked at the CIA, taking over Oliver North’s job after he was fired. We worshipped with government bureaucrats and lobbyists and Pentagon employees. We might have been a congregation divided by politics, but we all knew that everyone in that space loved their country and loved their God. We respected each other; we broke bread together; we sang together.
It’s hard to know which came first; the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the two parties, or the rise of what over half of the US populations sees as a dangerous and unstable tyrant/President, a culture of not questioning or challenging his authority. Did we stop talking to each other civilly (or at all) after we found out who we voted for in 2016? Or did the lack of discourse lead to the election of a demagogue? Is it too late for us to unite in our love for what is good and beautiful and noble about this country?
I hope not. Music has the power to persuade the heart when all else fails. As we assessed the tracks for our 20th album November, we felt underwhelmed with the way our “America” had turned out, with just Katryna and me singing our harmonies. What had made it so special in those shows right after the election had been the way the audience had risen, stood with us and sang along, the harmonies different every night. Katryna said, “Why don’t we ask some of our friends to sing with us?” So, we did. Chris Smither is one of the first great singer/songwriter/guitar masters we with whom we’ve had the pleasure of performing. We, along with our friend Dar Williams, all used to be managed by the same folks, and we feel like family. We’ve shared many a festival stage with the amazing Vance Gilbert, and we are smitten with his huge, generous voice and heart. Peter Mulvey blew us away with his 2015 song “Take Down Your Flag,” and Kalliope Jones is Katryna’s daughter Amelia’s band—an inspiring trio of college-age musicians who challenge the perspective of these oldsters on a daily basis. On our last chorus, we asked Ben Demerath, our old friend with whom we made our Christmas album Joy to the World in 2017. We’re hoping that the many voices calling for beauty, kindness, justice, and mercy, will once again confirm our liberties in law. This song is us adding our voices to the mix.