The Spirit of American Experience

This might be one of my all-time favorite things. It’s an older version of the American Experience opening and theme (composed by Charles Kuskin) that so beautifully juxtaposes things I love dearly: film, American history, and music.

One reason I love reading about American history is this country’s ability to make music out of dissonance. The diversity of stories and characters in this video’s parade of images is but a dip into the great lake of trial and triumph this country and its people have swam in since the beginning. We’ve been at war with ourselves in a million little ways since before we were even a country. The producers of American Experience got that, and illustrated that in this montage.

A buffalo stampede and a Native American, followed by a white pioneer. A nineteenth-century African-American couple, followed by footage of Jackie Robinson. Theodore Roosevelt’s kiddish grin dissolving into the Sierra Nevada, followed by footage of the Dust Bowl, a factory, and a steam engine. Abraham Lincoln split-screened with Martin Luther King. A triumphant General Eisenhower fading to troops in Vietnam.

But the most poignant moment for me is toward the end (at :36 in the video). After a few soaring orchestral lines, the piano takes over the plaintive melody that underscores footage of kids chasing and waving goodbye to a passing vehicle, and then a swooping shot of the Statue of Liberty, America’s long-serving Greeter-in-Chief.

Goodbye and hello. Division and duty. Dissonance and harmony. In documenting this nation’s formative moments and movements, this wonderful PBS program (along with its celebrity brother Ken Burns) has captured the spirit of America. Likewise, this beautiful theme has captured the spirit of the show it represents, and I’m happier for it.