While protest music has always garnered the most attention, odes to patriotism and national praise have been around for just as long, despite their reluctance to spur controversy. An American flag is displayed outside a store while seen through another flag along the main business street in Newtown, Penn. Tuesday, June 16, 2020. (David Goldman/AP)
The best patriotic music
Harry Khachatrian July 02, 11:50 AM July 02, 11:50 AM
While protest music has always garnered the most attention, odes to patriotism and national praise have been around for just as long, despite their reluctance to spur controversy.
Throughout the decades, paeans to America have been penned in all genres and styles. Here are some of the best songs to help you avoid defaulting to Bruce Springsteen’s synthesizer-clad ’80s cliche, “Born in the USA,” at your Independence Day celebrations.
“The Star-Spangled Banner”
While the most obvious patriotic music is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” its omnipresence can make it easy to overlook. Though it’s been covered by reams of artists, there are a few authoritative recordings that stand out. Both Marvin Gaye and Whitney Houston remain unmatched in their vocal prowess, but it is Jimi Hendrix’s Stratocaster I always find myself returning to. Hendrix best defended his legendary performance of the anthem against indignant liberals by explaining, “I’m an American, so I played it.”
“America The Beautiful,” Ray Charles (1972)
Originally written as a poem by Katharine Lee Bates in 1895, “America the Beautiful” is a stirring hymn that could fittingly sit in the place of the “Star-Spangled Banner” as the American anthem. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the song rose to national prominence by way of a soulful recording from Ray Charles capturing the essence of the song. On the record, Charles’s voice is distinctly colored by conviction. Charles wields an authentic tone only obtainable through having lived the American story. Born to destitution, hampered not only by race but the gradual waning of his eyesight in childhood, Charles ascended to national prominence through sheer talent and hard work. As the song goes, “America, America may God thy gold refine / ‘Til all success be nobleness / And every gain divined.”
“I Won’t Back Down,” Tom Petty (1989)
The first single from Tom Petty’s debut solo album, “I Won’t Back Down” is an up-tempo pop rock number the lyrics of which could have been the marching tune for the American Revolution. “Well, I know what’s right / I got just one life / In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around / But I’ll stand my ground.”
“America,” Simon and Garfunkel (1968)
Few facets of the American experience are as uniquely red, white, and blue as the inspiration for Paul Simon’s “America,” the classic road trip. This song captures the hope and optimism of youth, the still nascent period of adolescence, filled with reveries, staring into the vast, verdant landscape of America.
“Don’t Tread on Me,” Metallica (1991)
For those with a penchant for booming drums and the thrashing guitar sounds of hard rock, Metallica penned a veritable ode to the Revolutionary War on its 1991 self-titled LP. Written at the tide of the Gulf War upon Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, James Hatfield wrote, “Threaten no more / To secure peace is to prepare for war.”
“Small Town,” John Mellencamp (1985)
John Mellencamp captures the soul of suburban America with the same deft precision found in John Hughes’s films. Mellencamp wrested the lyrics in “Small Houses” from his experiences growing up in Indiana, seeing its working-class denizens lose their jobs to economic hardships.
“Back in the USA,” Chuck Berry (1959)
A straightforward rockabilly with Johnnie Johnson’s honky-tonk piano, “Back in the USA” is a fun homage to America. Featuring Etta James on backing vocals, Berry paints the perfect soundscape for your July 4 barbecues: “Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill, night and day … / I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the USA. Anything you want, we got right here in the USA.“
“Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John (1975)
Originally written by lyricist Bernie Taupin at the behest of Elton John for his friend Billie Jean King, who coached a professional tennis team called the “Philadelphia Freedoms,” the upbeat pop arrangement quickly became a stadium staple, its lyrics having little to do with tennis and instead bellowing calls to freedom and flags. “’Cause I live and breathe / This Philadelphia freedom / From the day that I was born / I’ve waved the flag.”
“Living in America,” James Brown (1985)
The king of soul, James Brown, fuses jazz, funk, and disco in his inimitable style to craft a record that could even get the ayatollah grooving along. A pulsating horn section drives the rhythm, over which James Brown struts with glee, lauding America’s bounties. “Living in America, got to have a celebration, rock my soul!”
Harry Khachatrian (@Harry1T6) is a computer engineer in Toronto. He is also a writer and editor, focusing on music, culture, and technology.
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