Yes, I confess. Just like you, I want to take back America. My America of course. Only in my case, it's not to some imaginary Christian society of a mythical past I wish to return, nor to the world of the Founding Fathers. I wasn't around then, believe it or not. And neither was anyone else...
Let me be clear, here and now: when I say I want to turn back the calendar, it's not to a lost imaginary America epitomized by Roger Williams or Cotton Mather, or even to the more recently falsified land of Ronald Reagan… No, I want to bring back the America of Bing Crosby. Because that was the real America, the liberal America.
I was around then.
Bing… He was big. Bigger than Bill O'Reilly. Bigger than Elvis, because you see he held down the Number One slot in all the entertainment world. Not just as singer but as the biggest box office attraction Hollywood could come up with. His name on the marquee was pure gold. His radio show meant the whole country was listening. Every diner you happened to enter you heard his honeyed voice oozing from the juke box. He started early, and when he got to the top he held his throne for twenty years, throughout the thirties and forties.
Crosby was the quintessential American, back there in the 'greatest generation.' His personality defined us. He was our hero, and not John Wayne (We would get to him soon enough—he came in with the 'Christians.' See below). But all our allies knew it. All the world loved us and our music, the big bands, the jitterbugging Gis, Betty Grable pinned on their locker doors--but most of all Der Bingle. Hitler wasn't scary anymore once they heard that voice so full of love and humor and warmth, crooning White Christmas. When they saw that the Americans didn't get excited about anything, that they simply assumed that Cool would win the day, win the world, win the war. Those Americans, they said to one another, they really know how to live. What a happy place their land must be! No screaming fanatics, no tyrannical ideologies, no religious or political strife… None of this could exist, they told themselves, in a society that could produce Der Bingle. Surely, nothing unpleasant could there abide… And they were right.
Now let's get it straight: I'm not just some old guy longing for the Good Old Days. I am of course old, so old in fact that I'm almost ageless—but that's another matter. But no, please, I'm serious; hear me out. I mean to use Bing Crosby as a metaphor, a symbol, a forgotten icon. One that embodies the very essence of that vanished era—a time that now seems an anomaly in our cultural history. Looking back, it is clear: there's been nothing like it, before or since. It was the only time America actually was liberal. I speak of the time span, roughly considered, between the two great wars, 1918-1945, the domain of Bing Crosby. He could have happened only then, for this was a time when we had the world by the tail. Modernity had arrived, and America was its undisputed champion. Suddenly there were electric lights, telephones, movies, motor cars, and most of all, radio… All new, and it was all happening right here, right before our eyes, under our noses, in our ears.
It was all effortless, Crosby style. We had finally discovered how to live. All we had to do was enjoy it. Our formula for living, implicitly grasped and embraced by all and sundry and embodied by Bing, was hey man, life is a ball. Don't get excited. Jazz began to emerge, the Charleston and the Jitterbug followed by Swing and the Big Bands. In this special epoch, those halcyon days when Crosby was king, conditions in America were nearly idyllic, it now seems in retrospect---and this despite the most horrendous war of all time going on all around us. We were having fun. A certain joy reigned everywhere. You could see it in our faces, hear it in our music, watch it in our movies. When we turned on our radios, we heard nothing even remotely negative—only more joy. Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny, One Man's Family. The dance bands, live on alternate stations: Glenn Miller, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey. There was no Talk Radio, dedicated to destroying the people's faith in their elected government, 24/7 spewing hate. A Rush Limbaugh would have been unthinkable… No equivalent then of today's Fox News, dedicated to dividing us. No pornography, no drugs, not even a cuss word was to be heard. Dropping the F-bomb might get you a night in the slammer.
But most of all, no religion. The media never mentioned it, and neither did anyone else. We were getting along just fine, thank you, with our modernity. We had a decent society, livable, relatively safe for all. The country belonged to the middle class, and with FDR's new Social Security legislation, virtually everybody was important, secure, welcome to it all. But then came the invasion. North into Akron came the hillbillies, looking for jobs in the burgeoning new war plants, bringing along their dubious Mayberry religiosity.
Overnight, Akron became the very center of fundamentalism in the United States, the veritable buckle on the Bible Belt. Suddenly the place was jumping with preachers. It got so you could scarcely hope to go out of your house and not be buttonholed by some boor who would poke his finger into your belly and bellow into your face brother are you saved? The town was abuzz with arguments about Eternal Security, Predestination, Armageddon and miscellaneous ongoing disputations such as if-you-should-be-in-the-beer-joint-when-the-rapture-comes-would-you-go-straight-to-hell—and yes let’s not forget the perennial favorite, the one about where did Cain manage to find a wife after he left the Garden of Eden and went into the Land of Nod where nobody yet lived? And how did Jonah stay alive those three days in the belly of the whale? And what about the fossils in the geologic record, were they put there by the Devil? And just who is the Antichrist? Could it be Roosevelt?
But Bing was still singing. Laid back. Casual. Capable. Unruffled. Confident. Amiable, friendly, tolerant, forgiving, accepting. Sense of humor that wouldn't quit. Lovable, charming, invincible. If it was an act, it was the greatest performance of all time. And yes, it was liberal. Because Liberal equalled Cool. If we ever lost our Cool, we knew we'd be in trouble.
I collected pipes, back then, hoping to capture some of his magic aura. I'd take my favorite round-bowled yellow one from the rack in my attic digs, stuff it with cherry tobacco, don my tweed sport jacket and head out into the mad mad wartime world of 1945, prepared for anything. It mattered not what evil or insanity I might encounter, all I had to do was light up my pipe, waltz through it all, waddle right through the cultural fires and the riots, various sorts of 'bombs' newly going off around me--and all the while I would smile, puff on my pipe and warble a little tune.
This road leads to Rainbowville, goin' my way?
Up ahead is Bluebird Hill, goin' my way?
While I puffed away and sang my song the religious nuts melted away, disappeared. No problem. They couldn't reach me. I was King of the World.
But out in my back yard that song was still to be heard, coming from Mrs. Jones' window, a first for the new medium called Radio: the Gospel was now going worldwide.
Heavenly Sunshine, Heavenly Sunshine
Flooding my soul with Glory Divi-iine
Heavenly Sunshine, Heavenly Sunshine
Hallelujah, Jesus is mine.
Changes were in the wind. To be continued.
We were Innocents, and I defy you to explain it. Was Bing the cause, or the effect? Did he create us or we him?