The House I Live In

Sheet music to "The House I Live In."

Sheet music to “The House I Live In.”

I was visiting my sister Kanista in North Carolina last month.  On our last night together, she pulled out a Frank Sinatra songbook she had found at a thrift store.  What a treasure of Sinatra songs over the years!  We both flashed back to memories of listening to our parents’ Sinatra albums when we were growing up.  I opened the book and we went page by page singing the songs we knew – and that was most of them!

The Sinatra Songbook that my sister found at a thrift store! We know practically all the songs in this book and sang then all our last night together in North Carolina!

The Sinatra Songbook that my sister found at a thrift store! We know practically all the songs in this book and sang then all our last night together in North Carolina!

When we got to “The House I Live In,” Kanista didn’t know this one.  I only knew about it because of a Sinatra documentary I had seen on cable and got excited recalling the song and story.  And although I couldn’t sing the song for her we both started reading the lyrics and couldn’t look it up on YouTube fast enough…

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
And 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 song was part of a short 10 minute film written in 1945 by Albert Maltz and produced by Frank Ross and Mervyn LeRoy.  The film was made to oppose anti-Semitism at the end of World War II and received an honorary Academy Award and a special Golden Globe award in 1946.

In the short movie, Sinatra plays himself taking a break from a recording session and stepping outside of the studio when he sees a group of boys chasing a Jewish boy and he steps in.  First he talks to the boys and then goes into the song.  He explains to the boys that we are “all” Americans and that one American’s blood is as good as another’s.  He also explains that all our religions are to be respected equally.

Me and my sister watch the 10 minute video of "The House I Live In" on YouTube.

Me and my sister watch the 10 minute video of “The House I Live In” on YouTube.

As Kanista and I watched the video we began talking about the current election cycle and how crazy things have gotten.  We reflected on how interesting it is that the same themes keep coming back over time.  This video is as relevant now and it was in the 1940s.  The Library of Congress selected the movie to be preserved in the US National Film Registry as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”  In fact, this was done in 2007.

The place I work in
The worker by my side
The little town the city
Where my people lived and died

The howdy and the handshake
The air a feeling free
And the right to speak your mind out
That’s America to me

The things I see about me
The big things and the small
The little corner newsstand
Or the house a mile tall

The song has been covered and recorded by a number of artists including Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke.  Sinatra performed the song as part of his repertory for decades in particular at a White House dinner during the Nixon Administration and the Reagan inaugural ceremonies in 1985.

As we go to vote tomorrow, this song and what it means will be on my mind.  Regardless of who wins this election, my hope is that everyone will be able to come together for the good of our country after the dust settles.  I know it’s not as easy as an actor/singer telling a story to a bunch of adolescents, but I think that’s a starting point and we need a place to start.

The wedding and the churchyard
The laughter and the tears
The dream that’s been a growing
For a hundred and fifty years

The town I live in
The street, the house, the room
The pavement of the city
Or 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

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