Jason Mandell in Los Angeles
There’s a great Julian Barnes line: ‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.’
That’s kind of how I felt while writing a song about the soul of America. Is there such a thing? I don’t know, but I miss it.
I wrote the song a couple of years into the Donald Trump nightmare, when so many of us felt that something essential – something good and true – had abandoned us. Or that we had abandoned it.
The song might have started with ‘Indian casinos’. I don’t think I’m alone in finding those two words, situated next to each other, extraordinarily depressing. They tell quite a story about America’s past and present, those two words.
The tune began to take shape when I stumbled on to the refrain the soul of America. Though it felt a bit fuzzy, a bit simple, it also felt honest. I was trying to grasp something ineffable amid a very real moral crisis.
I felt better about the phrase once I realised I could vary the words that preceded it, so that one stanza would end with the narrator ‘wandering through the meadows where the orange poppies bloom, looking for the soul of America’, while another would end with ‘an old coyote howling in the night, moaning for the soul of America’, and so on.
By the raging Mississippi, beneath a burning cross
I dreamed of Billie Holiday, I dreamed of Robert Frost
And he said brother can you tell me, just how much would it cost
To buy back the soul of America
I didn’t mind borrowing a structure that Bob Dylan used all the time, as in Every Grain Of Sand or With God On Our Side. But I feared the song might come off as parroting political balladry, as if I was trying to put on a pair of Woody Guthrie’s pants.
When aye ay ya yaye sprang from my mouth, I felt I’d found something fresh. A visceral cry that cut across borders, at a time when our country’s borders were being militarised to cause devastating harm. I imagined Mariachi horns punctuating the chorus. The irony tickled me.
It took a few months to finish the song. Though I’d recently left my band The Coals to go off on my own, I asked my not so ex-bandmates to record it with me. Fortunately, they agreed, as did Dave Schiffman, who produced and engineered. Dave wanted the song’s energy to build. We tracked all the main instruments and the lead vocal live in an old Victorian house-turned-studio in Echo Park in Los Angeles.
Since we recorded it in 2019, a lot has changed in the US, and a lot hasn’t. Our national psyche is still in turmoil. But perhaps disintegration is the path to understanding. As Carl Jung said: ‘Fear the soul, despise her, love her, just like the Gods.’
Maybe the soul of America doesn’t need to be saved. Maybe it needs only to be regarded, like any mystery, with humility, caution and wonder.
Born in New York City, Jason Mandell has lived in Los Angeles for 20 years. LA Weekly called his band The Coals ‘a rare and beautiful thing to behold’ and described their songs as ‘romantic, musically poetic material that gnarled Nashville bards would kill for’. The Coals recorded two albums, A Happy Animal and Through Nighttime's Purple Skies, and one EP, The Long Escape. They are available wherever music is streamed or sold. In 2019, Jason went out on his own. Soul Of America is his first single, ‘a lament for our nation’s woes and a prayer for its healing’ .