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Song of the Day #1279

Song of the Day: The House I Live In features the music of Earl Robinson, and the lyrics of Abel Meeropol (under the pen name of Lewis Allan), both of whom were later identified as members of the Communist Party during the McCarthy era. In 1953, Meeropol actually adopted Michael and Robert, the orphans of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 for their acts of espionage in passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Robinson-Meeropol song is heard in a 1945 short film, directed by Albert Maltz, who would go on to be one of the Hollywood Ten. Being associated with some of these individuals kept the pressure on Sinatra, who was herded before investigators to answer questions with regard to his involvement with associations that had alleged "red" or "pink" connections. Seeking to travel to Korea to entertain the troops with the USO, Sinatra was offended that these investigators were impugning his patriotism; in the HBO documentary, "Sinatra: All or Nothing at All," he relates his answer to those who questioned his love for America: "they could take the Korean War and shove it up their asses." With this, he walked out of the investigation room.

It's a tad ironic, perhaps, that, in 1962, Sinatra ended up starring in one of the most controversial Cold War thrillers of the day, based on a favorite novel of JFK's, written by Richard Condon, which was filled to the brim with tense international communist conspiratorial intrigue, an emergent by-product of the Korean War: "The Manchurian Candidate," directed by John Frankenheimer. Sinatra's film performance is surely a highlight of his acting career. In any event, Sinatra's involvement with "The House I Live In" was primarily due to his view that the song celebrated an America without bigotry or prejudice. He had heard the epithets spewed against Italian Americans throughout his whole life; he was a greaseball, a wop, a guinea bastard, a mobster, simply by virtue of his ethnicity. His hatred of ethnic prejudice extended to a principled stance against all forms of racism and bigotry. At the conclusion of World War II, the world had to confront the ugly reality of anti-Semitism, which had propelled many regimes throughout history toward discrimination and violence against Jews. But the Nazis fell to a level of human savagery that cashed-in on long-held cultural biases to justify the mass extermination of Jews (Nazi racial "cleansing" of the Third Reich targeted others as well, including many "inferior" ethnic, religious, and political groups, and even sexual "deviants" of the "pink triangle").

In any event, this song was actually first heard in the musical revue, "Let Freedom Sing." In the film, there's a small plot set-up; Sinatra walks out of a studio, where he's just completed a recording, and he sees a bunch of kids fighting over this one kid who is different from them; he's Jewish. They are taunting this one kid, and Sinatra asks the gang if they're Nazis. They object; some of the kids say that their dads went to fight the Nazis. And Sinatra asks them that if their dads got hurt in battle, did they get blood transfusions? Well, sure. He asks the Jewish kid if anyone in his family were blood donors, and the kid says that both his mom and dad were donors. He asks the kids, would their dads have rather died in battle than receive blood from people of another religion? He tells them to think, or he could have simply said, "Check your premises," because we're all human beings with human blood. He says he's Italian, and some others may be Irish, French, or Russian, but we are all Americans. He then tells them a story about the first airstrike by Americans against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. It was successful due to the skill of Meyer Levin (by the way, a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School and a member of its Hall of Fame [a BTHS .pdf file]), whose bomb hit and sunk the Haruna, a Japanese battleship.

For all its controversy as a short-film, with its "commie" messages like, uh, "freedom of religion," the film moves into song, as Sinatra asks the opening question "What is America to Me?" He provides a lyrical celebration of American freedom and democracy, of "the right to speak my mind out," a paean to the American people of "all races and religions," and their values. This certainly didn't strike me as a piece of red propaganda, but I can understand the ways in which the material can be interpreted as "pinko," given its historical context and the people who were involved in its making. In the end, however, a special Honorary Oscar and Golden Globe were awarded to the short film, which can be seen on YouTube.

Right now, I count my blessings that I am eating a Thanksgiving meal in America, in the same Brooklyn, New York of Meyer Levin, in the "house I live in." A Happy Thanksgiving to all!