“Three Chords and the Truth” – The Amazing Ken Burns Does It Again

By August 21st, 2019

Blog No 103 
August 22, 2019 

“Three Chords and the Truth”  

 The Magic of Ken Burns’s Upcoming Documentary about Country Music

By Mack W. Borgen
Recipient of Eight National Book Awards  
For a “cleaner” / non-email presentation of this and my other blogs, essays, and articles, please go to my website at https://www.mackwborgen.com/

   Mack W. Borgen 

In multiple blogs over the last year, I have been presenting the best song lyrics of Modern America because it is this author’s belief that lyrics are the real poetry of Modern America. They roll around in our heads for decades. Almost unconsciously, every day we honor the words of America’s songwriters who said something in that perfect, poetic, or clever way.
In 2001, the amazingly talented Ken Burns presented a 10-episode documentary entitled Jazz, and now Burns will soon be releasing a documentary about Country Music. It is scheduled to premier on PBS on September 15, 2019.
Burns (B: 1953, Brooklyn, NY) is one of America’s foremost historical documentarians and, as stated in Jon Meacham and Tim McGraw’s recent article in Time magazine (August 26, 2019, p. 50) Burns is “(a)rguably the most influential interpreter of American history of the past three decades.”
In his documentaries, Burns presents an eclectic array of many aspects of America history through his brilliant use of pictures, music, script, videos, and voiceovers. Ken Burns’ works includes the following (listed chronologically):
Brooklyn Bridge (1981)
The Statue of Liberty (1985)
The Civil War (9 Episodes) (1990)
Baseball (9 Episodes) (1994) (Updated with The Tenth Inning in 2010, with Lynn Novak)
Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)
Jazz (10 Episodes) (2001)
The War (7 Episodes) (2007)
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (6 Episodes) (2009)
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (7 Episodes) (2014)
The Vietnam War (with Lynn Novick) (10 Episodes) (2017).
And now, Ken Burns is getting ready to present his Country Music – “three chords and the truth.”
But first, a few words about country music.
Some Americans still naively (and wrongly) believe that country music is the mere province of cowboys and rednecks. But it is much more. Country music has been expanding its reach and growing in popularity for decades. As stated in Meacham and McGraw’s article, Burns “makes it gracefully and implicitly clear that country music reflects not just red America but blue America too.”
In keeping with my presentation of the best songs lyrics of all times – and in my humble honor of Burns’ efforts —  I have set forth below a few excerpts of some of the country songs which will be included in Burns’ latest documentary.
Thus, here is Part 10 of my assembled list — done over the last nine years in conjunction with my research for my last series of books, Dead Serious and Lighthearted – The Memorable Words of Modern America.  For an explanation about the background of this Best Lyrics project, see below.

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The Best Lyrics of Modern America

– A Sampling of Country Music – 

Folsom Prison Blues (1953) (First Live Recording, Folsom Prison, CA – 1968) (Johnny Cash) (B: 1932, Kingsland, AK – D: 2003, Nashville, TN).

 “I hear the train a comin’

It’s rolling round the bend

And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when

But I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on …

When I was just a baby my mama told me, Son

Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns

But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die

When I hear the whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.”

Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (1966) (Loretta Lynn) (B: 1932, Butcher Hollow, KY).

“Well you thought I’d be waiting up

When you came home last night

You’d been out with all the guys

And you ended up half tight

But liquor and love that just don’t mix

Leave a bottle or me behind.

. . .  

And don’t come home a-drinkin’

With lovin’ on your mind …

Just stay out there on the town

And see what you can find

Cuz if you want that kind of love

Well you don’t need none of mine ….”

What Is Truth (1970) (Johnny Cash) (B: 1932, Kingsland, AK – D: 2003, Nashville, TN). Author’s Note: This song was sung by Cash to President Nixon and his guests at the White House in 1970. Nixon had asked Cash to sing Guy Drake’s welfare-recipient-demeaning Welfare Cadillac, but instead Cash, who was at this point ambivalent about the Vietnam War, used this opportunity to sing this anti-war ballad.   

 The old man turned off the radio

 Said, ‘Where did all the old songs go?’

 ‘Kids sure play funny music these days!

They play it in the strangest ways

Said: ‘It looks to me like they’ve all gone wild.

It was peaceful back when I was a child.

Well, man, could it be that the girls and boys

Are trying to be heard above your noise?

And the lonely voice of youth cries

‘What is truth?’


A little boy of three sitting on the floor

Looks up and says ‘Daddy, what is war?’

‘Son, that’s when people fight and die.’

The little boy of three says, ‘Daddy, why?’

A young man of seventeen in Sunday school

Being taught the Golden Rule

And by the time another year has gone around

It may be his turn to lay his life down.

Can you blame the voice of truth for asking

“What is truth?” 

Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way (1975) (Waylon Jennings) (B: 1937, Littlefield, TX – D: 2002, Chandler, AZ).

 “Lord it’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar

Where do we take it from here?

Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars

It’s been the same way for years

We need to change …

Ten years on the road, making one night stand,

Speeding my young life away

Tell me one more time just so I’ll understand

Are you sure Hank done it this way? ….”

Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American) (2002) (Toby Keith) (B: 1961, Clinton, OK).

“American Girls and American Guys

We’ll always stand up and salute

We’ll always recognize

When we see Old Glory Flying

There’s a lot of men dead

So we can sleep in peace at night

When we lay down our head.


Now this nation that I love

Has fallen under attack

A mighty sucker punch came flyin’ in

From somewhere in the back

Soon as we could see it clearly

Through our big black eye

Man, we lit up your world

Like the 4th of July.

 . . .

Heh, Uncle Sam,

Put your name at the top of his list

And the Statue of Liberty

Started shakin’ her fist

And the eagle will fly

And there’s gonna be hell

When you hear Mother Freedom

Start ringin’ her bell.

And it’ll feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you

Oh, brought to you Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”

  Old Town Road (2016) (Lil Nas X) (B: 1999, Lithia Springs, GA).

”Ridin’ on a tractor

Lean all in my bladder

Cheated on my baby

You can go and ask her

My life is a movie

Bull ridin’ and boobies

Cowboy hat from Gucci

Wrangler on my booty.

. . .  

Can’t nobody tell me nothin’

You can’t tell me nothin’…

I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road

I’m gonna ride ‘til I can’t no more….”

. . . . . . . 

Explanation and Background of Mack W. Borgen’s 
“The Best Lyrics of Modern America” Blogs
Song lyrics are the real poetry of Modern America. The lyrics of our favorite songs roll around in our heads for decades. Almost unconsciously, every day we honor the words of America’s songwriters who said something in that perfect, poetic, or clever way.
About nine years ago, in 2010, when I started my research for my books, Dead Serious and Lighthearted – The Memorable Words of Modern America. I spent much of the initial year assembling, sorting, and selecting those “memorable” song lyrics to be included in my books.
However, I eventually decided that it was necessary to exclude song lyrics from my books. This was done in deference to the needs of book brevity and in bowing recognition to the unavoidable subjectivity of making such selections. But it was also done because most songs are almost definitionally “intra-generational” in that they remain the separate and proud province of each generation. They are a part of each generation’s formative and collective memory – but not beyond that.
Nevertheless, as a result of that year of research, I assembled a relatively massive collection of what may be, by some measures of broad consensus, the greatest song lyrics of Modern America.
I have decided to start presenting them here for your remembrance and enjoyment. I confess that this is partly triggered by the fact that I have already done the fun, but painstaking, work of such assemblage. However, these lyrics blogs are also triggered by the fact that America needs – maybe now more than ever — to reach back and enjoy something or, as best said in 1967 by the Beatles in their song A Day in the Life” — “I read the news today, oh boy.”
Thus, starting on October 9, 2018 with Blog No. 83, I have started posting some excerpts of this author’s humble suggestions of The Best Lyrics of Modern America.

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