MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
The upcoming CD compilation "Song of America" has been years in the making and has a musical compass that maps out centuries of American history - new versions of 50 songs.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Did you ever hear (unintelligible) sweet Betty (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of song "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah")
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Glory, glory hallelujah. Glory, glory hallelujah.
(Soundbite of song "Everybody Get Together")
Mr. CHESTER POWERS (Vocals, The Dave Clark Five): (Singing) Come on you people now. Smile on your brother. Everybody get together. Try to love one another right now.
BLOCK: The mastermind behind the "Song of America" is none other than former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. She even made a special trip to the Grammy's in 2005 to drum up artist interest in the project. It all started with a casual conversation between Reno and her niece's husband, who's a record producer. Now, it's a three-CD set that's due out September.
Janet Reno, who now has Parkinson's disease, spoke with us about her latest labor of love.
Ms. JANET RENO (Former U.S. Attorney General; Executive Producer, "Song of America"): I have great-nieces and nephews that I'm enjoying dearly in my retirement. And they are three and four years of age. And they are singing. And one of the joys that I'm looking forward to is to play these recordings for them, so that they can build on their ability to use song to express themselves.
BLOCK: Let's work through some of these songs chronologically. It's fun to hear a song that everybody knows like "Yankee Doodle," done here in a totally new way. Here, it's by Harper Simon.
(Soundbite of song "Yankee Doodle")
Mr. HARPER SIMON (Singer): (Singing) Yankee Doodle went to town, a-riding on a pony. Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.
BLOCK: And I had to look this up to realize that this is the son of Paul Simon. And once you know that, you totally hear it.
(Soundbite of song "Yankee Doodle")
Mr. SIMON: (Singing) Father and I went down to camp along with Captain Gooding. And there we saw the men and boys, as thick as hasty pudding.
Ms. RENO: I thought it was a beautiful rendition of "Yankee Doodle" and it - and one of the really interesting aspects of it is as you put together something you still find something new, some new version of music that strikes as the heart evolves.
BLOCK: Do you remember when you were a schoolgirl? Learning songs like this was sort of part of the classroom that you were in.
Ms. RENO: "Home on the Range" was one of the songs we sang. And I had a pony and I would come home from school singing.
(Soundbite of song "Home on the Range")
Ms. JONI HARMS (Singer): (Singing) Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam. Where the deer and the antelope play.
Ms. RENO: You didn't want to hear me sing because I can't carry a tune. But I could get on that pony and ride across the pasture singing "Home on the Range." And thinking what that range meant 3,000 miles away from my home in South Florida and what it meant. And now, that I'm an old lady, it is so wonderful to think of the range that I learned about as a child so that I could go explore it.
BLOCK: I wonder if you had a conversation among the producers there of whether to include "Dixie," which you do in this version by the Mavericks.
(Soundbite of song "Dixie's Land")
Mr. RAUL MALO (Lead Singer, MAVERICKS): (Singing) I wish I was in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten. Look away. Look away. Look away. Dixie Land.
Ms. RENO: We had that conversation and that's part of American history. To tell the story of America, I think, "Dixie" has got to be included. It is progress. It is the industrialization of America. It is all these factors that had come together to make America what it is today.
BLOCK: I don't mean to pigeonhole you, but I had a feeling that you might have a special affinity for the song "Rosie the Riveter," which is sung here by Suzy Bogguss, song from 1942. And it's all about women joining the workforce during World War II.
(Soundbite of song "Rosie the Riveter")
Ms. SUZY BOGGUSS (Singer): (Singing) Rosie's got a boyfriend, Charlie. Charlie, he's a Marine. Rosie is protecting Charlie. Working overtime on the riveting machine. When they gave her a production E, she was as proud as a girl could be. There's something true about red, white, and blue about, Rosie the Riveter.
Ms. RENO: I love that recording because it reminds me of my aunt who was a woman Air Force service pilot in World War II. And both "Rosie" and my aunt were one of your great examples this strength and resource of the American women and what they can do in the world of war. And they can make remarkable contributions. And the spirit of "Rosie the Riveter" comes through this project.
BLOCK: I'm going to ask about a song from an earlier war - from the First World War. And this is done here by Andrew Bird. It's "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down On The Farm."
(Soundbite of song "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down On The Farm")
Mr. ANDREW BIRD (Singer): (Singing) How ya gonna keep 'em away from Broadway? Jazzin around and paintin' the town. How ya gonna keep 'em away from harm, that's a mystery? They'll never want to see a rake or a plow. And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow? And how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?
Ms. RENO: You drive through America and you look at the farms still there, the barns still standing because people were committed to their homestead. You realize how music must have made a difference in the lives of those who were still on the farm, but who wanted to come to the big city and were probably motivated, in some instances, by what they heard of the big city through a song. And these songs, I just hope that people will have the opportunity to hear and to see what song can do to inspire and to motivate and to give people a sense of themselves.
BLOCK: Well, Janet Reno, it's great to talk with you. Thank so much.
Ms. RENO: Thank you.
BLOCK: Janet Reno is executive producer of the upcoming three-CD set "Song of America." And you can hear Janet Reno reminisce about Janet Reno's dance party days on "Saturday Night Live," and hear more music from "Song of America" at our Web site, npr.org.
You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.