U2101 – The Hands That Built America

I had a little bit of trouble deciding what song to cover this week – Saturday night’s big surprise, “Lucifer’s Hands” was already covered a few weeks ago, there really weren’t any other big debuts this past week. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t necessarily have to cover a debut – there are plenty of other songs being played on a regular basis that are equally deserving of attention, one of which has been snippeted at every show so far of the I+E tour, “The Hands That Built America”. “The Hands That Built America” was originally released back in November 2002 as one of the two new tracks on The Best of 1990-2000, then about a month later (in a slightly different form) on the soundtrack to the film Gangs of New York. U2 won a Golden Globe for the song, and it was during the acceptance speech for the award that Bono infamously dropped an F-bomb on national TV.


The song itself starts out with some icy sounding keys before segueing into a warmer sounding verse backed by acoustic guitar, then a chorus with an organic sounding throbbing bass-line and a melody played on what sounds  like a xylophone. Lyrically, the song speaks about the origins of the United States and how the country was built on the backs of contributors from all over the world. Bono has talked a lot over the years about how America is an idea as well as a geographical location, and I think that the song is as much about the formation of that idea as it is about the literal formation of the country. America isn’t an idea based on innocence – it’s a tough idea based on freedom and equality for all with no time for playing favorites or serving individuals over the common good. It seems sometimes like we may have moved away from some of those principles and I think the song is an attempt to remind the whole world of what America was and could be, and that it’s still an ideal worth pursuing.


“The Hands That Built America” has only been performed in its entirety seven times, most of which came back around the time of the song’s initial release. Since then, the song has mostly seen the light of day as a snippet, firstly on the Vertigo tour, where it was tacked onto the end of “Bullet the Blue Sky” on a nightly basis, and more recently leading into “Pride (In the Name of Love)” on the current Innocence + Experience tour.

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Ever since I realized as a kid, while poring over the liner notes of the Bob Marley - Songs of Freedom boxed set, that writing about music was a viable career choice, one of my greatest desires has been to write about U2. The band has been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I'm thrilled to have this opportunity to contribute a little something to the fantastic online community that's been built around the band.

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