There was an extraordinary moment on The Tonight Show last week.
Paul Reiser, who likes to talk, didn't.
Instead he played piano, accompanying U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Kevin Gebo on trumpet and in uniform. They were backing singer Julia Fordham performing "Unsung Hero," a ballad she and Reiser wrote saluting the families of those serving in the U.S. military throughout the world. (Disclosure: I am a co-creator and executive producer of Reiser's show on NBC).
It was one of the oddest -- and most beautiful things -- I ever saw. Or heard.
Reiser's day job is being funny. Fordham writes and sings songs involving family, love and relationships.
Sgt. Gebo's day job is playing Taps at funerals of those who died fighting our nation's wars.
That these three came together to perform "UnSung Hero" -- with the full support of the U.S. military, which flew Gebo out upon one viewing of the video of the song -- is a good example of music's transcendent ability to transcend cliché.
Patriotism sounds different to everyone. What you hear when you listen to Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" depends on what you think about freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; basic tenets upon which our nation is built. And around which there has never been -- and never can be -- a clear national consensus or agreement.
What you hear when Randy Newman or Lee Greenwood sing of Bush Administrations depends less on patriotism than on politics, more about your party affiliation than your passion for the nation. Newman and Greenwood may well be patriotic, but their songs -- great as they may be -- are often more likely to divide than to unite.
Patriotism, like any form of love, is a subjective matter. It is personal, open to various interpretations and misinterpretations. Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" or Pete Seeger ripping into "Big Muddy" or Paul Robeson altering the lyrics of "Old Man River" to make it a protest song annoyed some who only heard agitprop. To me those old songs still sound like the most poetic expression of the First and Fourteenth Amendments any lawyer or judge ever came up with.
Yet like great love songs, great patriotic songs transcend the individual. They touch upon something universal, something shared, something fundamental. Patriotism is nothing like pornography except in one crucial detail: You know it when you see it. Or hear it.
Fordham and Reiser's "UnSung Hero" is remarkable for a number of reasons. Uplifting and rousing, it is not pro-war, nor even pro-military. Instead, it is a cogent reminder of those families who continue to sacrifice on behalf of the country with grace and modest dignity.
Fordham, a respected English singer and songwriter (who recently became an American citizen) has written lyrics that are true and unflinching, yet never mawkish, never angry:
What ever you do
Be Safe be true
And remember that I love you
Be brave be wise
And know inside
You're my unsung hero.
Reiser, a classically trained composer and musician, has written music with a visceral power that sustains a range of emotion, ranging from pride to angry determination to keep the U.S. military family more in our minds, hearts and political calculations. It is impossible to listen to the song or watch the extraordinary video accompanying it without being moved. Images of real military families welcoming their loved ones home manage to be both heartbreaking and heart-warming.
Reiser, a friend and writing partner, is no ideologue; his music and Fordham's words, are apolitical; their sentiments beyond partisanship. There is more in it that unites us than in a hundred Tea Party rallies or Stewart/Colbert gatherings.
In our last national election, war and peace was rarely if ever discussed. Questions about foreign conflicts or their impact on our armed services were eclipsed. The economy was the big issue. But even then, military families, who have been hit especially hard by tough economic times, did not receive the attention they deserved. Neither did the fact that everyday American men and women risk life and limb in our name as their loved ones wait, pray and worry. "Unsung Hero" is a lovely, powerful reminder that all of us can and should do better for those American families bearing more than their share of the burden demanded for national security.
Samuel Johnson's oft-quoted quip that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" applies to patriotic songs. A bad song will not be made better by calling it patriotic any more than evil-doing can be forgiven by calling it patriotism. "Unsung Hero" is the real article, a great patriotic song that unites rather than divides.
Let's hope Americans still have the capacity hear such beauty.