“God Bless America” turns unsettling at Folsom concert

Nothing’s simple in these politicized times.

The haunting words and melody of  “Danny Boy” are still running through my head today, and I’ll admit the lullaby “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” brought a tear to my eye. That’s what spending an evening with The Five Irish Tenors from Dublin, Ireland, will do to you if you have a touch of Irish blood, and you grew up in a New York neighborhood surrounded by the likes of Flynns, Quinns and Sullivans.

I and my wife, Carol, my own Irish lass, attended a delightful concert at the Harris Center in Folsom Tuesday evening. I felt tapped into my father’s ancestral roots in Ireland, Wales and England. His grandparents were immigrants who came to America and settled in Brooklyn, most likely in the 1840s.

The songs spoke of Irish loves and losses, heartaches and sufferings. The tenors recounted the  terrible famine that beset Ireland from 1845 to 1849 and drove thousands upon thousands of desperate people to seek refuge in the United States.  Their numbers, insularity and Catholic religion made them seem like a threat to many Americans. Politicians used them as convenient scapegoats. They suffered from poverty, discrimination and exploitation for decades to give their children and grandchildren an opportunity for a better life.

Given the intensifying hostility toward immigrants and foreigners in this country, it was gratifying to hear these five Irishmen say how warmly and enthusiastically they had been greeted on their first tour of North America. That certainly was the way they were received by the largely white, elderly and Irish-leaning audience at the Harris Center.

After concluding the concert with a heartfelt rendition of “Danny Boy,” the group returned to do an encore. In thanking us for our embrace of Irish music, the tenors said they wanted to return the favor by singing “God Bless America.”

I closed my eyes and let the patriotic words of Irving Berlin’s song wash over me.  Liberal though I am, I always feel moved by “God Bless America.” It belongs to me as part of my unassailable cultural heritage, along with the so-called Marxist response to it — Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

The tenors’ moving rendition of “God Bless America” carried me across this fine land, from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam. I reveled in the feeling, and when I opened my eyes, I was fully ready to embrace “America, my home sweet home.”

Instead, I suddenly saw that all those around me were standing, except for Carol, who was seated beside me. I felt caught in a Colin Kaepernick moment, with “God Bless America” hijacked by this crowd to serve as the national anthem.

I can’t say with certainty I was at an “America first” rally, but I wanted no part of whatever it was, nor did my wife. It wasn’t so long ago that our relatives, and those of many in this crowd, suffered from abuse and intolerance similar to that being directed toward immigrants and foreigners today.

We remained seated and let “God Bless America” speak for itself.  We were relieved to get out of the auditorium without a confrontation.

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6 Responses to “God Bless America” turns unsettling at Folsom concert

  1. Anonymous says:

    Paul,
    A lovely reminder on many levels. My great grandmother was a Flynn, who married a Welsh miner, and they came to build a life here. I can only imagine their hardships, but know something of their vision, as I have inherited this too. Best wishes with your ongoing lens on our culture, our art and our follies. J. Cooper

  2. John Clegg says:

    It’s tough being an artist in America…you can’t even close your eyes in public to go deeply into a song, or yourself without waking up in Trumpsylvania! 2 other songs that do what Danny Boy does to me: Van Morrison’s Carrickfergus, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSngcH-TVWU and Sinead O’Connor’s Molly Malone, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ouqhCtIh2g Thanks Paul…

    • Paul Clegg says:

      Thanks, John. The lullaby induced strong images of my family home, as though the song were sung so often it became ingrained in the walls.

    • Paul Clegg says:

      Thanks, John. The lullaby induced strong mental images of my family home, as though the music had been sung so often it became ingrained in the walls. I think I heard it sung by my mother, a couple of sisters and perhaps even my father. He used to refer to the “The Rose of Tralee” from time to time.

  3. Tom Quinn says:

    “… grew up in a New York neighborhood surrounded by the likes of Flynns, Quinns and Sullivans.” <<Hah! The Quinns and Sullivans tried surrounding you at times but still had trouble guarding you.

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