American Woman at 50: Burton Cummings reveals the real story behind the legendary song

For decades people have argued about its meaning, but the Guess Who frontman puts the debate to rest — for now

For decades people have argued about its meaning, but the Guess Who frontman puts the debate to rest

Burton Cummings, seen here in 2012, says many people think the iconic song American Woman was a political statement — but that wasn't the case. (The Canadian Press)

If you've turned on the radio in the past 50 years, you've almost certainly heard the unmistakable guitar riff and powerhouse vocals of one of Canada's biggest rock hits of all time: American Woman.

On May 9, 1970, the iconic Guess Who track skyrocketed to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart — knocking out megastars like the Jackson 5 and the Beatles. 

But what you may not know about the song is that there is some controversy about its meaning. Some believe it was a Vietnam-era anti-war song; others say it was a message of American patriotism — even though the people behind it were distinctly Canadian.

So what was it?

To find out — and to mark the song's half-century anniversary — q host Tom Power caught up with the man who co-created that song, legendary singer-songwriter and Guess Who frontman Burton Cummings. 

Here is part of that conversation.

How have you found performing during this this pandemic? I know you've been doing some online performances.

It's very sad. A lot of tours have been cancelled. Randy Bachman and I had a monstrous tour booked for this summer, and we would be on the road right now were it not for this quarantine. I've done a little bit of Facebook Live and got a tremendous response. I kind of like doing it. It's just like sitting in my own living room, inviting people into my house.

As far as keeping busy, I have about 460,000 songs in my hard drive, and I have a huge DVD collection of movies and old television. And I have a second book of poetry coming out before too long.

So I'm busy enough, but I just feel terrible for the people who have been really adversely affected. A lot of people living from paycheque to paycheque are finding it very hard these days.

But this is not something to be fooled around with, and I'm not in any hurry to rush back and get on an airplane full of people right now. I want to be perfectly clear before we do any concerts that everything is over.

Exactly 50 years ago, on May 9, 1970, American Woman went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. And I love the story of this song, because it's the story of a lot of great songs. People don't often see the songwriting process, and I think they imagine people sitting down by candlelight with a quill. But American Woman kind of came from a jam, right?

It was basically jammed on stage. We were doing two shows at a curling rink called The Broom and Stone in Mississauga. The band had finished the first show, and I was outside the rink with a guy who told me he had some Gene Vincent records. I was a big fan of Gene Vincent, so I was trying to cut a deal. And I heard the other three guys start up and I said, "Oh, I gotta be onstage. I gotta run." 

The guys couldn't find me at that point, and it was time to start the second show, so Bachman started this guitar riff — just a repetitive riff just to signal me to get the hell in and get on stage. And it was that riff.

The Guess Who on Let's Go! in 1967. Their biggest hit, American Woman, was released on March 9, 1970. (CBC)

I ran in and jumped up on stage, and just started making stuff up out of my head — one of those Bob Dylan stream of consciousness moments where you just go with what's coming out of your imagination. And I was more or less looking for things that rhyme. You know, coloured lights can hypnotize, sparkle someone else's eyes.

A lot of people thought it was political. It was never political. I've heard [original Guess Who bassist] Jim Kale explain the lyrics; he didn't have anything to do with the lyrics. Neither did Bachman, really. But for some reason, these guys have started to say the American Woman was the Statue of Liberty. That's just not true.

But is it like a Rorschach test? Can we sort of peer into your subconscious and figure out what you might have been singing about?

I remember quite specifically that we had been touring the States on the strength of These Eyes and Laughing and Undone. I don't even think No Time was out yet. And I noticed when we were in the States, the girls seemed to grow up faster. They started wearing more makeup and dressing more sensuously at a younger age. And then when I got back to Canada, it seemed that the girls weren't trying so hard to grow up so fast.

So what I was thinking was "Canadian woman, I prefer you." But what came out of my mouth was "American woman, stay away from me."

I wasn't thinking politically. I wasn't thinking about the Vietnam War — which at that time was at a particularly bad point of escalation, so people read a lot of their own meanings into those words. And what came out could have been construed as anti-American.

One way or the other, it caught the attention of the public and it got much bigger. Believe me, we didn't see that coming.

I heard that when you guys got asked to play the White House, you were asked not to play American Woman. Is that true?

That's another myth. Our manager at the time came up with the idea that if we told the press that the White House asked us not to play it, it might be a good publicity stunt.

Well, it backfired on us — and we were crucified in Rolling Stone for playing at the White House under the Nixon administration. But we were never asked not to play American Woman.

It's funny, but it feels like the meaning of the song kind of got away from you. I can't imagine what it's like to create a song onstage, and for people to infer all this meaning that you have no control over when it isn't even close to what you actually meant.

And here's the thing: It was a different era in in history. The Vietnam War was raging. There were protests all over on campuses and that terrible shooting in Ohio had occurred, where the troops shot some students down and things were off the rails. It was a very tumultuous time.

And I guess timing being what it was, that song suited a lot of people's emotions, and we were the beneficiaries of that. But no, I came up with those words ad-libbed, and it was never, ever meant to be political.

Burton Cummings, seen here in 1969, says the band was so excited about hitting number one on the Billboard charts, they jumped up and down on a hotel bed until it broke. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

You were the first Canadian band to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 with American Woman. And this might be another myth, but I heard you were at a Holiday Inn in Milwaukee when you found out?

That is true to fact. Back in those days, Wednesday was the day you got the magic phone call to find out what chart position your song had the next week. And Randy Bachman got a phone call from RCA studios in New York telling him that we had gone to number one.

I'm not sure who we knocked off number one. I think it was either the Beatles or the Jackson 5. We were pretty excited. I think I was 22 at the time.

Randy got the magic news and called the three of us to one of the hotel rooms. The four of us got on a bed, put our arms around each other's shoulders in a circle, and jumped up and down until the bed broke. We were just like little kids.

Burton Cummings was supposed to tour with former Guess Who bandmate Randy Bachman this spring, but the tour was cancelled because of COVID-19. (Submitted by Manitoba 150)

People have asked me, "If you could go back and relive five or 10 minutes of your life, what would you choose?" That might be pretty high on my list, because, first of all, there have been countless artists — big, big artists, much, much bigger than we were or I have ever been — that never got to number one.

So it was a once in a lifetime experience for us. It was a pretty big deal. It was a magic moment.

It was the Jackson 5's ABC that you knocked out.

Well there you go. And I remember, too, that the Beatles' Let It Be was also in the top 10 at the same time. So we certainly were up there with some pretty big artists.

Then in 1999, a whole new generation was introduced to American Woman through Lenny Kravitz's 1999 cover that landed the song back on the Billboard Hot 100. It was everywhere. But I was always curious: did you like Lenny's version?

Well it took me a while to get used to it because he changed it so much. What I really got used to and loved was the harmony vocals that he put in there.

You know, there's an irony to this. Lenny writes all of his own songs, but guess what was the biggest record of his career? American Woman.

I believe the way that came about was Mike Myers was doing one of the Austin Powers movies, and they used our version in the movie, then they approached Lenny Kravitz to reprise the song during the final credits. I heard they got Lenny to do a demo version, and when his record company heard it, they liked it very much, so they put it out and it skyrocketed for him.

So Lenny's version turned a whole other generation, the MTV generation, onto the song. And millions of people did some retro digging and found out that the Guess Who did the original version. So it was a very happy accident for us.

It says something about the timelessness of a piece of music, when it means something to a generation 30 years later.

I've talked about this. You know, a love song is a love song no matter what. You could record something today that had love song lyrics that were written in 1910, because love is a timeless theme.

But when a song that wasn't a love song can surface again 30 years later, it's a testament to how powerful the lyrics must be. And as I said, it probably turned a lot of heads from the MTV generation back to the original version. So it gave us a lot of exposure, years after the original record.

This week, it will be the 50th anniversary of American Woman going to number one. What does it mean to you that this song's popularity has sustained for so long?

You know, I've been on the radio now for so many years, for decades. And I have never taken it lightly. I know that I've been luckier than millions and millions of artists, and many of the Guess Who songs and my solo songs have never gone away.

So what I revel in is the longevity, really and truly. I'm one of the most grateful artists you'll ever meet. I've never taken it for granted.- Burton Cummings

So what I revel in is the longevity, really and truly. I'm one of the most grateful artists you'll ever meet. I've never taken it for granted.

And what it means to me is that good records live forever. My mother had 78s when I was a tiny kid, and before I ever went to kindergarten, I would play with my mother's record collection. I realized very early in life that there's something magical about recordings. They're there forever. They freeze time.

So that has always weighed on me heavily. And I know how lucky I've been.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Edited by Jennifer Van Evra, interview produced by Kaitlyn Swan.

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