Crucifying America on a Playlist of Gold

In addition to the short list of people that we've elected president is an even shorter list of people that by all rights should have been at some point. I'm not talking about Ron Paul or Ralph Nader or Ross Perot but huge figures of statesmanship like Colin Powell or Daniel Webster who seem like they should have gotten the job at least once just based on qualifications alone.

King among such men was the one and only William Jennings Bryan, who did at least run for the highest office on many occasions without ever quite securing the job. Today is the anniversary of a speech Bryan gave in 1896 that coined a phrase which has echoed down into the modern era and at the time made him the Democratic candidate for president against William McKinley.

The speech was over bimetallism, or basing the U.S. currency on both gold and silver. Bryan believed that limiting America to the gold standard would doom the country to financial instability and ruin, and said that he would not "help to crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Those last three words, the popular appeal of Brian himself, and the huge debate over the issue at the time has ensured Bryan's legacy as one of the greatest political orators in American history.

The image of a "cross of gold" has never really left the American mind, and survives today within the lyrics of many songs.

Michael W. Smith, "Cross of Gold": Michael W. Smith is one of the great, cheesy contemporary Christian artists in the world, and it's hard not to love the man just for his sheer exuberance. 1992's Change Your World, is a ridiculously catchy collections of tunes, and "Cross of Gold" is definitely a standout track.

In the song, Smith too is concerned about inflation, but it's the inflation of your spirituality based on the size of the God-themed bling on your neck. In a sense, he and Bryan are asking the same question, what's gold truly worth all by itself?

Bill Joel, "Only the Good Die Young": The one and only Billy Joel wanted to make it very clear in this 1977 release that locking yourself up against in the wicked world was simply no way to live when there was a life to live outside with the sinners. A cross of gold isn't any protection against the lure of devil rock and roll, anymore than it was a barrier against economic collapse in the turbulent 1890s.

Bob Seger, "Cross of Gold": Now good old Bob Seger starts taking us in the other way the phrase has been interpreted over the years, that as a statement of the power of money to nail people into situations they can't get out of under the guise of sanctimoniousness and morality. Steal, lie, cheat? It doesn't matter, because the man with the gold is the man with the hammer and pins.

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Turisas, "Broadsword": But still, faith in talismans is a pretty universal trait. I've never met even an atheist without at least a lucky hat or something. Is it the preciousness of the material, or is it the sacredness of the symbol?

Regardless, people put their trust in trinkets and shiny metals all the time. Jethro Tull expressed this in heart-stopping way, but I never let an opportunity to feature my favorite metal band Turisas go by without acknowledging them. It's one hell of a cover.

Clark Datchler, "Crown of Thorns": Datchler left Johnny Hates Jazz at the height of its popularity to hit it solo, something that never really took off starting with his 1990 single "Crown of Thorns."

The song takes the same sentiment as Seger, but with a much more anti-religious oppression tone. "Holy men talk of hunger, while standing beneath a cross of gold," he sings, and no one can say that that has never happened.

It's amazing how many different ways three small words have been taken in the course of popular music. Proof positive that a good catchphrase will last forever.

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