Former Guess Who singer Burton Cummings has looked to clear up a couple of misconceptions about their hit “American Woman:” that it was anti-American and that they were told not to play it when they visited the White House.
Speaking to the CBC on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the day — May 9, 1970 — it topped the Billboard Hot 100, Cummings recalled how it was written. They were playing at a curling rink called the Broom and Stone in Mississauga, Ont., when Cummings couldn’t be found to start the second show. Randy Bachman began played a riff, and Bachman, realizing it was time to work, ran to the stage and began improvising lyrics based on the differences in the girls that they had seen in their travels to the U.S., as opposed to the ones in their native Canada.
“I noticed when we were in the States, the girls seemed to grow up faster,” he said. “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.'”
He continued ad-libbing, making up phrases that rhymed, and something clicked. Fortunately, the band discovered someone was recording the concert, so they confiscated the tape and learned the song from it so they could get a studio version. “American Woman” quickly became thought of as a protest song of Canadians looking down on problems in the U.S., with the titular lady being a metaphor for the Statue of Liberty.
But despite containing the lyrics like “I don’t need your war machines / I don’t need your ghetto scenes,” Cummings maintained, “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.”
Two months after the song hit No. 1, they found themselves as the entertainment at a White House party thrown by President Richard Nixon due to the fandom of his daughter, Tricia. The band later said that the Nixon Administration had told them to strike it from the setlist, but Cummings revealed that it was their own decision, but not out of a unwillingness to offend the politician.
“That’s another myth,” he said. “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.'”