Steve Martin Talks About His Fourth Of July Song

Originally published on July 4, 2011 5:01 pm
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(Soundbite of banjo music)


Tonight, the actor and comedian Steve Martin will be on a musical stage with the bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers. They'll celebrate the nation's 235th birthday in song.

(Soundbite of song, "Me and Paul Revere")

THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS (Music Group): (Singing) Late at night in the silver light, in the stables eating hay. In came a man, an artisan, and we both rode away. He whispered in my upturned ear, it's time to get and go. Now this job's done, we breathe as one, head for the outbound road. Me and Paul Revere, oh, me and Paul Revere.

(Soundbite of fireworks)

NORRIS: That's "Me and Paul Revere," written by Steve Martin. You can see him play the banjo on this song live this evening on the PBS broadcast "A Capitol Fourth."

Of all the country's patriots, why write about Paul Revere? Martin says it started with a John Singleton Copley painting that hangs in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Actor, Musician): In my view, in my little art history view, I consider this one of the first American paintings, because it is a portrait that is completely stripped away of English influences. Most of the English paintings and the American portraits at the time had balustrades and tapestries hanging in the background. They were very fancy.

But this was not a political painting, because Copley was very much an English, you know, he was very much a Tory. And he painted a man, a working man with his sleeves rolled up, and it was just something that really wasn't done.

And from being interested in that painting, I read a very good history called "Paul Revere's Ride" by David Hackett Fischer. And so, I had written a tune on the banjo. And for some reason, it just occurred to me to write the story of Paul Revere. And then taking it a little further, I decided to tell it from the point of view of his horse just to make it more interesting and entertaining.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: A horse whose name is Brown Beauty.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes.

(Soundbite of song, "Me and Paul Revere")

THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS: (Singing) We turned north through Cambridge town and on the Mystic Road, nostrils flared and galloped strong, my legs on fire below. We got up to where they slept, woke Adams and Hancock, and they said who's that? That's Larkin's horse. She's steady as a rock.

Brown Beauty is my name, Brown Beauty is my name. Revere and I, one and the same. Brown Beauty is my name.

NORRIS: You've been working on this for a while, so I'm wondering, what was your reaction when Paul Revere rode into the news cycle recently when Sarah Palin spoke about his famous ride?

Mr. MARTIN: I try to stay out of the political scene, and I always think it's never wise to ad lib when you're talking, especially about facts.

You know, my wife used to be a fact-checker for the New Yorker magazine. So I'm always extremely cautious. For example, this song, I carefully or I'll say pretty carefully fact-checked before I went out there with it.

NORRIS: It sounded like you developed a bit of communion with Paul Revere, you came to really respect him the more you got to know him.

Mr. MARTIN: He was not only Paul Revere, silversmith. He was a rabble-rouser, too, as well as a patriot. And he was a pretty tough guy.

(Soundbite of song, "Me and Paul Revere")

THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS: (Singing) He told them that 100 men had spread the good alarm. You'd better head away from here, for Lexington is armed. Revere stood tall and fooled them all, told them what to do, and they let him go but sadly so, they took me with them, too.

NORRIS: What happened to Brown Beauty, because she notes that they let him go, but sadly so, they took me with them, too?

Mr. MARTIN: Yes, they - the British took the horse from Paul Revere and was never heard of again.

(Soundbite of song, "Me and Paul Revere")

THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS: (Singing) I never saw Revere again. I know he thinks of me and wonders where I ended up the night we set men free. I'm just a horse that no one knows. I'm famous, though, inside, standing proudly in a field. I was Revere's ride.

NORRIS: How did you pick up the banjo?

Mr. MARTIN: I was a teenager in Orange County, California, and the folk music craze was sweeping the nation, led by the Kingston Trio. And that's when I first started hearing the banjo, and quickly from there I started hearing Pete Seeger. I started hearing Earl Scruggs, I started hearing groups like the Dillards. And from there, it was just a passion.

NORRIS: Do you still play every day?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, I'm on tour. I'm on tour. We play every day and at least three, four hours a day. And when I'm not on tour, I try to play every day to keep the muscles going.

NORRIS: Well, Steve Martin, it's been great to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Mr. MARTIN: OK, thank you very much.

NORRIS: Steve Martin tours with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Their recent album is called "Rare Bird Alert." But if you like this song, "Me and Paul Revere," you'll have to download it, because it's not included in that new release.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.