Larry Norman's "The Great American Novel"

Larry Norman (1947 - 2008) was a notable figure in the Jesus music movement of the 60’s and 70’s and is often called the father of Christian rock (“Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?”). On September 9, 1979, he was invited as one of several artists to perform a song for Jimmy Carter and 1,000 guests on the White House lawn. He was asked not to sing about anything political or religious, so he sang his Dylanesque protest song “The Great American Novel” from his 1972 Only Visiting This Planet album (he tells the story at the end of this youtube clip).

The song has a few really nice anti-authoritarian lines, approaching Christian anarchism. The fact that he sang it for the President of the United States of America gives it an even sharper edge. I’ll give the full lyrics along with my emphases and comments after the embedded YouTube video below. If you’d like to explore some more Norman, I recommend Fred Clark’s post of his top 10 Larry Norman songs.

“The Great American Novel” Lyrics and Comments

I was born and raised an orphan in a land that once was free
In a land that poured its love out on the moon;
and I grew up in the shadows of your silos filled with grain,
but you never helped to fill my empty spoon.

More about pouring love out on the moon later…​

And when I was ten you murdered law with courtroom politics,
And you learned to make a lie sound just like truth;
But I know you better now and I don’t fall for all your tricks,
And you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth.

You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter,
Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water;
And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on,
At every meal you say a prayer; you don’t believe but still you keep on.

And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.

Those last four are the most unfortunate lines in the song, especially since they are repeated several times. I don’t fully understand it, but angry Christians love repeating the “it’s against the law to pray in school” mantra. I don’t think they are in general, or Norman is here, advocating for school-established prayer; rather it’s a touch of willful ignorance mixed with a slight persecution complex.

Norman did not think kindly of the space program. His talking blues song “Reader’s Digest” on the same album reflects similar sentiment:

The man on the news said China’s gonna beat us,
We shot all our dreamers, there’s no one left to lead us.
We need a solution, we need salvation,
Let’s send some people to the moon and gather information.
They brought back a big bag of rocks.
Only cost thirteen billion. Must be nice rocks.

In an interview he explained that, to him, the space race represented some of the worst and most hypocritical aspects of nationalism:

“I wanted us to feed the poor, and to stop worshipping the space program thinking this proved that God was on our side and not the Russians' because we were superior in the space race to the moon. And to realize that our government was taking over countries in the same way that Russia was, creating satellites, but we call their communism ‘evil’ and our democratic appropriations of foreign governments ‘rightous’.”

Back to “The Great American Novel” lyrics:

You are far across the ocean but the war is not your own,
And while you’re winning theirs, you’re gonna lose the one at home;
Do you really think the only way to bring about the peace
Is to sacrifice your children and kill all your enemies?

When he played this song live in later years he changed the “winning” line to “And while you’re losing theirs, you’re also losing the one at home”.

The politicians all make speeches while the news men all take notes,
And they exaggerate the issues as they shove them down our throats;
Is it really up to them whether this country sinks or floats?
Well I wonder who would lead us if none of us would vote.

Well my phone is tapped and my lips are chapped from whispering through the fence,
You know every move I make, or is that just coincidence?
Well you try to make my way of life a little less like jail,
If I promise to make tapes and slides and send them through the mail.

I don’t know if that last verse is referring specifically to some COINTELPRO-type activities or to some imaginary police-state dystopia.

And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.
You say all men are equal, all men are brothers,
Then why are the rich more equal than others?
Don’t ask me for the answer, I’ve only got one:
That a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son


comments powered by Disqus