It’s as simple as this: I miss corny American nostalgia.
And I think the last great hurrah of corny American nostalgia comes during the Bicentennial in 1976. The 1970s seem like such an innocent time, though like most innocence full of itself as the most progressive and culturally hip. Like teens who have all the answers only to grow up and laugh at their hubris, the 70s can only look back at their leisure suits and avocado-colored kitchen appliances and laugh.
But in the early 70s, in the years leading up to the Bicentennial, there was a sense of this country looking back and saying “Wow, look at how far we’ve come!” with a certain blind amazement that really felt like it had a national consensus. And, yes, that meant a certain level of tackiness with regards to folks trying to capitalize on the event. There were Bicentennial tea towels and shot glasses, everything began to take on a red, white and blue color scheme, and all our most cherished myths of history were reinforced.
This Romance of the Revolution took some pretty odd turns. Everything old was new again, and television was a hungry medium looking for the next old thing. I remember a Saturday morning cartoon vividly set during the turn of the century that seemed aimed at the same vibe that brought about the creation of Country Time Lemonade. Okay, all that I vividly remember without the aid of Google was a Saturday morning cartoon that attempted to look like a version of The Waltons, and that it didn’t last long, but that looking-back nostalgia was very strong then. The cartoon was called These Are the Days and ran for only 16 episodes before someone realized that the adventures of a widow raising three kids during the days of outdoor baths and volunteer bucket brigades wasn’t selling sugared cereals. But if you’re ever playing the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and need to find a bridge with Jack Haley, June Lockheart, or Mickey Dolenz this is your link.
Another piece of corny American nostalgia aimed at kids was a daily newspaper cartoon called Yankee Doodles that featured fractured colonial history. It ran from 1973 through 1977, no doubt running on fumes after fives years of jokes about Franklin, Washington, Revere, Native Americans, and turkeys. But I remember reading it religiously and would love to see those strips today just to see how well they hold up. I know memory is a funny thing, often turning a dull turd into a burnished nugget of gold over time but I suspect this one might not be so faulty. One of the strips creators, Ben Templeton, had a hand in the daily strip Motley’s Crew and when it was good it was both well-drawn and politically astute.
Growing up on the West Coast meant that I actually had a physical distance as well and an emotional one from much of this American history. Boston, Lexington and Concord, Salem, Plymouth, Philadelphia, all these places where the history of this country actually took place, they still existed. And the history books in school and the shows on TV showed me an America that was, to an extent, still preserved and culturally alive. There was a longing for this very palpable sense of history, to see the coastal homes with their widow’s walks, to see the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall as if, somehow, standing in their presence would convey some mysterious link to history that could only be experienced in person, through osmosis.
It wasn’t all national. In my home town the junior and senior high orchestra and chorus put together a musical program, compiled for the event by enterprising arrangers of school music, that featured a history in song and narrative of America. And to document the event a company was on hand to make recordings and press them into LP records to sell to patriotic families. For two nights we sold out the Robert Lee Frost Auditorium and played our mediocre program and felt good about it all the same.
But as corny as it might seem, there was something very heartfelt about a home painted white with blue trim and a red door. There was nothing ironic at the time about the bell bottoms I owned that were red and white stripes with blue stars down the white. And in a strange way there was a pride in watching those televised Bicentennial Minutes on TV every night and seeing that American politics had always been messy, and that as were were recovering from Watergate there was a hope that we could — would — one day be a great nation. Tall ships and fireworks and the idea that the great experiment in democracy in America was celebrating its 200th birthday was a big deal, and even the cynics had a hard time denying it. The crass commercialism — try “bicentennial” on eBay to see all the items adorned with the official government logo for sale — yes, one could be dismissive of those items, but the very idea of a national movement, that was hard to put down.
And that’s something I also miss, that sense of a national anything. There are top rated shows on television, and number one songs, and bestselling books, and it’s entirely possible to be ignorant of all of it because of an absolute deluge of information coming at us. I’m nostalgic for a time when there was a book everyone was at least aware of, even if they had no desire to read it. Or music that found itself into so many homes that you couldn’t go to a yard sale or thrift store without seeing copies — still in shrink wrap — in the bins. I’m not talking about a Cold War area monoculture, just a sense that we had something shared as a nation. Something that didn’t necessariy rely on a rah-rah isn’t-America-great jingoism, but something worth looking back on down the road.
I want a New Corny America.