"This is the history of America. 'Dixie,' all of it, has got to be addressed."

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

While it may seem that former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno and "freak folk" indie music idol Devendra Banhart could only appear together on a very special episode of "South Park," they co-exist quite happily on "Song of America," a three-CD, 50-track set that will be released on Tuesday.

Conceived by Reno after her niece's husband, musician Ed Pettersen, played her songs about the Old West, "Song of America" weaves together 500 years of U.S. history through new recordings of traditional tunes. The results are by turns comfortingly familiar (John Mellencamp's "This Land Is Your Land") and downright startling (Japanese American ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro's "Stars & Stripes Forever"). Proceeds from "Song of America" will go to history and music education programs.

-- Melinda Newman

Other than coming up with the idea for the project, how involved were you? Were you involved in the song or artist selection?

No. Ed reminds me that after I suggested that they do it, I sat down with a piece of legal paper and mapped out the history of America and eras . . . Colonial, revolutionary, westward expansion, World War I, Depression, World War II and the New Frontier . . . and he kept a copy of it.

How do people experience history in a different way by hearing about events in song versus reading about them?

Song can provide a reference point. I think of "Home on the Range." I love that song and I would pore through books showing the scenes that would accompany the music if there was music to go with it. Music lives with you. You can't carry around a range in your back pocket, but you can carry around a tune to "Home on the Range." Music is just a great way of carrying along memories.

How will this project be used as an educational tool?

I think just discussing, for example, how "Dixie" came to be written and what "Dixie" means gives us a better understanding of that period. Some people say, "How could you use 'Dixie' on a project like this?" This is the history of America. "Dixie," all of it, has got to be addressed.

Do you fear the project will be politicized because of your time as attorney general?

My understanding of what they tried to do was to make it as nonpartisan as possible. I think we succeeded in that. I certainly hope so.

As attorney general, you presided over some very tumultuous times: Can you imagine any of them being captured in song?

I think I could, but I don't know. . . . I dealt with that office in the here and now: What problems do we have, how do we solve these problems? I wasn't thinking in terms of music.

How do you think other former AGs -- John Ashcroft or Alberto Gonzales -- would approach this project?

John Ashcroft is a barbershop quartet veteran so I'm sure he would have had great musical appreciation. . . . I think much of it we might find common ground on and others we might differ.


I don't know how Gonzales would do it.

Will Ferrell famously spoofed you on "Saturday Night Live" as host of "Janet Reno's Dance Party." Is a dance record your next project?

No! [laughs]

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