The House I Live In (That’s America To Me)

It’s the name of a song. I heard Frank Sinatra sing this song twice in two days recently. Because of the disturbing events of the last few days and months, it made me think. What was the story behind this song? And why did it become identified with Sinatra?  I was curious about who wrote it. Ever the cynic, I imagined it had been written by immigrants. Probably Jewish immigrants, like so many of the composers who cranked out music in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. So I did a little digging.

What I found surprised me.

The song is featured in a ten-minute short, called The House I Live InAccording to my cursory research (and thank you, Google and Wikipedia), the film was made to oppose antisemitism and to encourage tolerance at the end of World War ll. Starring Frank Sinatra as himself, the film received an honorary Academy award (for “tolerance”), and a special Golden Globe award (Best Film Promoting International Understanding)  in 1946.

The title song, known as “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me),” was written by two men who were once members of the Communist party in America.

The man who wrote the lyrics, under the pen name Lewis Allan, also wrote the lyrics to “Strange Fruit,” originally written as a poem published in 1937 and famously performed by Billie Holiday in 1939, to protest in graphic terms racism and the lynchings of African Americans in this country.  Lewis Allan’s real name was Abel Meeropol. An anti-racist activist, he was also the adoptive father of the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in the electric chair in 1951 for conspiracy to commit espionage.

The music was written by Earl Robinson, later blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, who wrote and sang folk music. Among his other compositions: “Joe Hill” and “Black and White.”

The title song became a Sinatra standard and he performed it over his entire career. He sang it in 1961 at a gala for JFK. He performed it during a state dinner at the White House during the Nixon administration, at the 1985 inaugural ceremonies of Ronald Reagan, and at the ceremony marking the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty. (Meerpol’s sons sent a letter to the New York Times, expressing their pride at hearing Sinatra sing their father’s song on this occasion. From the NYT obituary for Meerpol: ”We hope that ‘The House I Live In’ will serve to remind all Americans that patriotism is not limited to the right wing,” the letter read. ”We hope our father’s life and work can help convince people to view with suspicion anyone who would curtail political freedom and limit the range of acceptable political debate in the name of anti-Communism, of anti-terrorism or of some ‘higher’ morality.”)

This song has been covered by Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, and Sam Cooke, among many others.

Here is the entire film. Just ten minutes long. Ol’ Blue Eyes from Hoboken, New Jersey, sings a song about America written by a couple of Americans who were blacklisted for their efforts. The young Sinatra, taking a break from a recording session, talks to some kids who are trying to beat up another kid (with sideburns that mark him as Jewish) because they don’t like his religion.”Are you a bunch of Nazis?” he asks the boys.

Timely?

 

The original lyrics:

The House I Live In

What is America to me?

A name, a map, or a flag I see;

A certain word, democracy.

What is America to me?

The house I live in,

A plot of earth, a street,

The grocer and the butcher,

Or the people that I meet;

The children in the playground,

The faces that I see,

All races and religions,

That’s America to me.

The place I work in,

The worker by my side,

The little town or city

Where my people lived and died.

The howdy and the handshake,

The air and feeling free,

And the right to speak my mind out,

That’s America to me.

The things I see about me,

The big things and the small,

The little corner newsstand,

And the house a mile tall;

The wedding and the churchyard,

The laughter and the tears,

And the dream that’s been a growing

For a hundred-fifty years.

The town I live in,

The street, the house, the room,

The pavement of the city,

And the garden all in bloom;

The church, the school, the clubhouse,

The million lights I see,

But especially the people;

That’s America to me.

The house I live in,

My neighbors white and black,

The people who just came here,

Or from generations back;

The town hall and the soapbox,

The torch of liberty,

A home for all God’s children;

That’s America to me.

The words of old Abe Lincoln,

Of Jefferson and Paine,

Of Washington and Jackson

And the tasks that still remain;

The little bridge at Concord,

Where Freedom’s fight began,

Our Gettysburg and Midway

And the story of Bataan.

The house I live in,

The goodness everywhere,

A land of wealth and beauty,

With enough for all to share;

A house that we call Freedom,

A home of Liberty,

And it belongs to fighting people

That’s America to me.

If you listen, you’ll notice that Sinatra sings different lyrics, notably missing the part about “neighbors black and white.” Meerpol was not pleased about this omission in a film that was supposed to teach tolerance and acceptance.

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