Janet Reno's ode to America


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Yes, THAT Janet Reno.

Reno's love for music might not be the first thing you think of when you hear her name, unless you're a fan of the old "Janet Reno's Dance Party" skits from Saturday Night Live.

But the former US Attorney General has executive produced a voluminous, three-CD compilation entitled Song of America. The set seeks to tell the story of America, warts and all, through music.

"The historical detail of the songs fascinated me and I suggested that Ed [Pettersen] record a whole album of songs focusing on key periods in American history, in order to tell our story to young people who might find joy in learning history through music," Reno said in announcing the compilation last month.

The set includes songs from a wide variety of artists, John Mellencamp's version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," Bettye LaVette's take on Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia, Andrew Bird's rendition of "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm," and the Del McCoury Band's version of Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are A Changin."

Reno spoke with MP3.com about the origin of the idea to put the collection together, her own personal tastes in music and whether she still rocks out in her basement.

Janet? Hello, Jim, how are you? I'm good. How are you, Janet? Just fine, thank you. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Yes, sir. So I wanted to start at the beginning with the inception of this project. It sounds like Ed [Pettersen], your niece's husband, who has a song on the album, he performed some of his folk songs to you, and that sparked the idea in your head? That's right. I said, 'Ed, why don't you write the song of America in history?' OK. Interesting. And he set out to do it, and he and his colleagues did a marvelous job. He certainly did. Now was it originally envisioned as a three-CD set, or did it just kind of get to the point where there were so many songs that fit? No, Ed and David and Bob Olson sat down and tried to figure out how they got 50 songs out of 700. Still they couldn't reach agreement and figured that they had done enough and closed it out at 50. Right. I guess they could have kept going and going, I'm sure. Now what are your personal favorites on the album? The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" [by Joanna Smith], "Home on the Range" [by Joni Harms], and [BR549's] "Sweet Betsy from Pike." "Streets of Philadelphia" [by Bettye Lavette] is another one. OK. Those are great songs. The variety on it is tremendous. Absolutely. How many of the songs that are on it had you heard before the compilation was put together? I think I had heard them all except for, I didn't know "Peg and Awl" [by Freedy Johnston]. And I had heard them all but not together as a collection. Now I've heard them all as a collection. Do you think they fit together well? Well, there isn't a way that they fit together. It's spelled out in the chronology of our history. Our history sometimes doesn't fit together. Right. Sure. I was going to ask you about that. This compilation doesn't necessarily just focus on, you know, expressively patriotic songs or songs about the greatness of the country. It takes a very much a warts and all approach with songs like "Little Boxes" and "Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)", and that kind of thing. Was it really important to include all facets of American history and not just the good stuff? It was important to show America in all her roles, inspirer, governor, leader. And it's also important to show that if we're going to make democracy work, our citizens have to be involved. And I think this effort is a wonderful opportunity to involve citizens in better understanding their country, its history, and what made it great, and what we have to do to keep it great. Absolutely. Now in the liner notes for the compilation, you wrote that, 'History is made when people and circumstances converge to shape events that interrupt our normal routine and move us in new directions.' How many times during your tenure as Attorney General do you think you were right in the middle of such a convergence? There were opportunities, but I think the best opportunity that I had was to use the authority of the office to focus on kids in terms of crime prevention. OK. We are never going to solve the crime problem unless we focus on kids and make them strong and healthy and give them a future that will be a peaceful one. Right. So what we did was to create the program by which President Clinton upheld his promise of putting 100,000 police officers on the streets of America in community policing initiatives. Together with that, we put in prevention programs that gave them something to relate to. And in the end we saw crime go down each year that we were there. We sure did. And it's an example of what we can do when we work together to address the problems and solve the problems that cause the democracy to take note. Right. Now was it possible for you during that time to have a historical perspective about what you were doing and about the events that were going on? You inevitably think of history but, oftentimes, the problems get so intense that you don't think of anything but the exact moment that you're dealing with. But it's important to have history in mind, to learn from history to not make the same mistake twice. Absolutely. Yeah. Now is your public political life a thing of the past? I know you ran for governor of Florida in 2002, but are we ever going to see you on the public stage again? I don't think I'm going to run for office, but I'm going to continue to speak out on the issues that are important to me. OK. And those obviously being what you had already talked about, children and education and crime prevention and those sorts of things. A psychologist taught me that 50 percent of all learned human response is learned in the first year of life. And if we don't raise our children with that investment in those early three years, we're not going to have the children who can be the workforce of tomorrow to maintain this country in its strength. Absolutely. Do you ever personally sing or play music yourself? I know I saw a video a long time ago of you singing Aretha Franklin's "Respect" before. But do you ever sing yourself or anything?

No. No one wants to hear me sing. You'll leave it to the professionals? Yes. The last thing I wanted to ask you about was do you ever have any dance parties in your basement? I know that Saturday Night Live suggested that you did a few years back. [Laughs] No. No Janet Reno dances? That was great fun. No real Janet Reno dance parties? No Janet Reno dance parties. Well, I very much appreciate your taking the time to talk to us. Thank you very much.

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