No, the year is not a typo. In August of last year, I attended Dance Church for the first time. Dance Church originated in Santa Cruz, and describes itself as follows: “where the DJ is the minister, the music is the sermon, and the dancers are the congregation.”
I volunteered to compile the playlist for the next gathering, scheduled for 9/11/11. We all agreed it was a poignant day, though appropriate for a spiritual (non-religious) group with the following intention:
“Dance Church is a diverse gathering to honor the body/spirit connection,
celebrate life, and build community through improvisational movement,
artistic expression, and an openness to the sacred however defined.
Do your yoga, stretch, roll around on the floor, boogie;
dance alone, with another, with others;
connect with your own spirit and that of whatever may be greater.
A circle will begin and end the gathering and a variety of music will be played.”
Before I presented my playlist that day, two people offered very opposite perspectives about the occasion. One man, wearing a T-shirt commemorating Salvador Allende’s death (on September 11, 1973), criticized the hubris and aggression of American foreign policy. His condemnation bothered another woman, who wished to commemorate the many losses on 9/11/01.
I could relate to both; my patriotism is equal parts shame, frustration, disgust, and exasperation with pride, hope, wonderment, and gratitude. The differing opinions expressed in that moment exemplified what I appreciate most about being American, that we can express, and hopefully tolerate, a massive spectrum of ideas. I have visited enough places to know how frequently freedom is taken for granted here.
I explained to the group that when I considered music to express my feelings around 9/11, I wanted both to celebrate my pride and acknowledge my shame. I chose many iconic songs, often performed by iconic Americans, with a heavy dose of locals.
(As you’ll notice, plenty of icons are missing. I only needed 90 minutes of dance music. And not surprisingly, there are some overlaps from another playlist.)
Rising Appalachia – “Freedom” (Sails of Self)
The title says it all—self-determination is definitely the source of the pride of my patriotism. Rising Appalachia is based out of NOLA these days, but they are originally from Atlanta. The group is a great example of self-determined musicians, with no record label or outside management.
Bobby McFerrin – “Blackbird” (The Voice)
Bobby McFerrin is one of America’s finest, simply a ridiculously amazing musician. (The Voice is a ridiculously amazing album, just him without any accompaniment or overdubbing.) Paul McCartney credits the civil rights movement as inspiring this song. So, in all, an icon covering an iconic song of another iconic group, of whose members were heavily inspired by American music.
David Crosby – “Music is Love” (If I Could Only Remember My Name)
This title has certainly been my truth, as well as that of many others. This song also felt very aligned with the mission of Dance Church.
Robert Randolph & the Family Band feat. Dave Matthews, Leroi Moore, and Rashawn Ross – “Love is the Only Way In” (Colorblind)
This felt like an extension of the previous song, particularly the lines “In the street we’ll be dancing / Out in the street we’ll be moving.”
Marvin Gaye – “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (What’s Goin’ On)
Another icon, from one of the most iconic concept albums ever. Though the lyrics sound a lament, somehow the song still conveys joy to me. So it is much like 9/11, with both the celebration of the survival of spirit, as well as the grief of loss.
Ani Difranco – “Amazing Grace” (Living in Clip)
From January: I grew up singing hymns. “Amazing Grace” is certainly one of the most iconic, and this is by far my favorite version.
Growing up, it was common knowledge that this hymn was written by John Newton, a former slave trader. I love the message that no one is beyond redemption—again, the freedom of self-determination.
Bruce Springsteen – “Born in the USA” (Born in the USA)
This was an obvious choice—certainly iconic, as well as more misinterpreted than not. So it felt even more appropriate for the poignancy of 9/11, noting both the privilege of being American and a war often considered unjust.
Karminsky Experience Inc – “Exploration” (The Power of Suggestion)
This is the only non-American group on the list; however, I first heard this song on a Thievery Corporation album (DJ Kicks). So I permitted inclusion. And it’s iconic, sampling the voice of Frank Borman, an Apollo 8 astronaut.
Dave Daniels – “Got One” (A Place to Put a Dream)
Another local, and a great Stevie Wonder-esque dance song. Rather than relying on mutlihypenations (like rock-acoustic-folk-blues-pop), Dave Daniels simply calls his music “American.” Well stated.
Mary J. Blige & U2 – “One” (The Breakthrough)
Another one (get it? cue rim shot). And the only other exception to the non-Americans, although I think the American woman is the power on this rendition, which I consider better than the original.
Ben Harper – “Get It Like You Like It” (Both Sides of the Gun)
Freedom yet again, in one of the most jubliant first lines ever: “Throw your hands up in the sky, and scream out loud ‘I’m free!'” Ben Harper is one of my my musical icons, for many reasons. He’s also a good example of American diversity, in that he is multiracial and plays many genres of music.
Tom Petty – “Free Fallin'” (Full Moon Fever)
Another obvious choice—like I could make an American playlist without this song. It was an obvious choice to follow Ben Harper’s song (see first line).
Billy Joel – “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (Storm Front)
I remember watching this music video a lot as a child. The song felt appropriate, given that it chronicles nearly half the 20th century, and 9/11 occurred in the first year of the 21st century. The references are also a mix of things worthy of pride and shame—the choice depending on the listener. Wikipedia has a history lesson if you want details.
Outkast – “Rosa Parks” (Aquemini)
Locals, again. Another reference to civil rights. And an excellent dance song.
Shawn Mullins – “House of the Rising Sun” (9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor)
Yet another local, who recorded this iconic song in a neighborhood that became iconic soon after the recording was completed. Though this list is heavily male, worth mentioning that Shawn Mullins chose to use lyrics from the female perspective. Another rendition I find better than the most famous one.
Nina Simone – “Sinnerman” (Pastel Blues)
From January again: Wary of sounding overly dramatic, I hesitate to declare this one of the most epic recordings ever, by one of the most epic artists ever. But both of those assertions are true. Though it’s not the most danceable song, how could I not include this on an American list? Nina Simone is another American icon, who transcended genres better than nearly everyone else.
Stevie Wonder – “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” (Fulfillingness’ First Finale)
Stevie Wonder is one of my biggest musical icons (musical, not just American). An excerpt from January: Before hearing [the song], I didn’t know a song that so fully embodied what moves me about life—the heartbreak and the delight, the confusion and the insight, and ultimately the divine presence both within and without. This song best embodies how I try to remember 9/11—the potential for unity, the capacity to strive for better.
Jimi Hendrix – “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Icon, reckon? This was another given for this list. Since the national anthem always functions as an opener, I opted to use it as a closer.
SK © 2012