Editor’s Note: see the previous reflection in this series on country music and American values: “3 Reasons Why I Like Country Music“
Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” (“on that September day”) is a loving and poignant tribute to the victims of the 9/11 atrocity. Debuting at the CMA Awards festival two months after the terrorist attack, it is country’s version of Billy Collins’s poetic memorial “The Names.” Like Collins (“Yesterday I lay awake in the palm of the night”), Jackson is modest and understated (“I’m just a singer of simple songs/I’m not a real political man”), but the political and communal messages are powerful. Listing the reactions of ordinary Americans, Jackson charts a range of caring responses to the terror attack. These include patriotism, gratitude to heroes, the turn to God for answers, and a reassessment of what matters most in life:
Did you burst out with pride for the red, white and blue
And the heroes who died just doin’ what they do?
Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer
And look at yourself and what really matters?
“I didn’t want to write a patriotic song,” Jackson told his interviewer Linda Owen at Today’s Christian. “And I didn’t want it to be vengeful, either,” he explained, “but I didn’t want to forget about how I felt and how I knew other people felt that day.”
Whether he intended to or not, Jackson did end up writing a patriotic song filled with solicitude for his country and its people. There is one potentially vengeful, or realistically self-protective, response mentioned (“Did you go out and buy you a gun?”), but most of the emphasis is on holding loved ones close and affirming membership in community: phoning one’s mother with a message of love, standing in line to give blood, speaking to a stranger on the street. Nowhere, of course, does Jackson imagine that ordinary Americans might have felt satisfaction at the thought of America being so wounded, or that their first impulse would have been to blame America and glorify the terrorists.
For many if not most Americans, the assumption of inviolability and non-involvement had crumbled with the Towers. The feeling of immunity or even apathy toward the possible irruption of terror on American soil had been replaced in the minds and hearts of decent people by an unexpected conviction of responsibility, coupled with a deep sense of anger, sorrow and resilience. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” John Donne wrote in the 17th Devotion, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Wherever many of us were on that September day, we were also in New York. I was marooned (no boats, no planes) on the tiny Greek island of Tilos, but rapidly understood that Tilos was a part of the North American continent.