July 3, 2012 at 9:00 AM ET
Patriotic songs. They’re as common to the Fourth of July as cookouts, fireworks and record heat. And who doesn’t love a patriotic song?
Well, quite a few people actually. They include critics of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and anyone who has flinched while sitting through a celebrity-damaged rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Other would-be anthems that aren’t always popular include Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” recently banned in an elementary school for supposedly being “offensive,” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” a female empowerment anthem recast out of context as the jingoistic theme song of Sean Hannity’s radio talk show.
As patriotic songs go, what one person considers a tribute to America can come off as cliché to another. Yet when these songs strike the right chord it’s hard to deny their power.
One of the most powerful is also one of the oldest, “America the Beautiful,” originally written as a poem back in the 19th century. Scads of country singers have covered it, but the rendition that has become the standard is the gospel-infused one by Ray Charles, which he recorded in 1972. Expect to hear it if you tune into PBS’s live broadcast “A Capitol Fourth.”
As much as celebrities get criticized for mangling the national anthem, the live rendition by Whitney Houston in 1991 set the standard for how the song should be sung and was popular enough to go platinum. An earlier version by Marvin Gaye also showed that with the right voice, the song can be transcendent. Jimi Hendrix’s legendary Woodstock instrumental version -- considered irreverent at the time -- made the tune seem majestic in a way few could have imagined.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” sometimes gets mistakenly lumped in with patriotic songs. But even though its fist-in-the-air chorus gets ’em singing along in the stadiums, the verses tell of a veteran of the Vietnam War whose life has fallen apart, making it one of the Boss’ most subversive tunes. John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” came out around the same time and is more a heartfelt celebration of the heartland.
Springsteen has also been known to cover Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” another song that isn’t quite as patriotic as people perceive it to be, yet has become a sort of “people’s national anthem.” It was purportedly written as a more humanistic response to Irving Berlin's bombastic “God Bless America.” Had Guthrie lived longer, he’d probably be amused at the way he succeeded in knocking Berlin’s song off its perch, since his is the one you hear more of these days.
Some songs that people consider patriotic are really just protest songs that focus on the country, such as Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” and the Grateful Dead’s “U.S. Blues.” More to the point are a handful of more recent country songs, notably Brooks & Dunn’s optimistic “Only in America,” about opportunity (like the Jay and the Americans oldie), and Trace Adkins’ “Arlington,” about a fallen soldier.
Few lists of such songs mention the nearly forgotten would-be anthems of the Reagan Era that were once considered contenders. Anyone remember Bob Seger’s “American Storm” (a Top 20 hit in 1986) or Prince’s “America,” which just missed the Top 40 in 1985? Oldies fans are sure to be familiar with hits that were patriotic by virtue of the fact that they retold historical tales. What else would you expect from songs titled “The Battle of New Orleans” and “PT-109?”
What patriotic songs make you proud to be an American -- and which ones have we missed? Tell us about it on our Facebook page.
Tony Sclafani is an arts and culture writer whose first book is due out next year. His writing can be seen at www.tonysclafani.com.
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