Joseph Byrd, ‘Yankee Transcendoodle: Electronic Fantasies for Patriotic Synthesizer’ (12/02/76)


This is an unlikely album—old patriotic airs and marching tunes played on Arp and Oberheim synthesizers by the one-time leader of the ill-fated “avant-garde” rock group The United States of America. It is also a delight. Byrd refashions everything from “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to “John Brown’s Body” to “The Internationale” (here disguised as “Grand Centennial Hymn”) into a warm and casually humorous texture very much like one of Garth Hudson’s long organ introductions to “Chest Fever”; like Hudson at his most inventive and witty, Byrd plays music that a lot of people have heard primarily on merry-go-rounds and at parades. The sound is full of movement, of sentiment, of easy good times and celebration.

The secret inclusion of “The Internationale” is a clue to Byrd’s politics, but I hear no irony on this record; it’s an artist’s embrace of his country through its music, one side of the nation Byrd can presumably accept without ambivalence (and of course “Dixie” appears in counterpoint to “John Brown”).

Byrd is no Charles Ives, and the music here never reaches for the majesty of, say, “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” (a marvelous piece that can be found on Charles Ives: Music for Chorus, Columbia MS 6921). It’s playful and archival; in Byrd’s words, “the sounds depict brass bands, wind bands, calliopes, fifes and drums, Regina music boxes and Wurlitzer automatic organs, music hall orchestras and whorehouse pianos, a chorus of boy whistlers, jazz bands hot and sweet, a Kentucky parlor on a warm afternoon in 1902, the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814 [the event that inspired “The Star Spangled Banner”], the Conquest of the American Wilderness, and a 15-year-old girl cornetist in church on the Fourth of July.” The sounds depict all that, and also a man trying, in a spirit of great fun, to come to terms with his country 200 years after it was founded.

Byrd’s album is bright, lively, spunky, and full of charm; the music one hears all one’s life without ever really listening to it. The chance given, it would be un-American to pass it up.

Rolling Stone, December 2, 1976

2 thoughts on “Joseph Byrd, ‘Yankee Transcendoodle: Electronic Fantasies for Patriotic Synthesizer’ (12/02/76)

  1. “The chance given, it would be un-American to pass it up.”
    A little help with that please? I’ve been looking to hear this album for well over a decade, and still haven’t found it (or audio files).

  2. Came up empty-handed myself on this one, Chris. I’ll update the post if I can ever find something — even YouTube doesn’t have any of it. If you’re in the US, you might try Spotify.

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