The Fourth of July is fast approaching. For most of us, that means one thing: hot dogs. No, wait, two things: hot dogs and hamburgers. Wait a minute. What am I saying?
The Fourth of July is Independence Day, which is when we celebrate our break from England, a country that really didn’t distinguish itself musically until the Beatles and the British Invasion of the early 1960s. How could we possibly continue to associate ourselves with a nation that had no blues, no rock, no jazz, no soul, no country? What did they really expect us to do, sit around all day in powdered wigs and pointy shoes, listening to some geek play the harpsichord?
No, the Fourth of July is about more than just hot dogs and hamburgers. It’s about chicken. It’s about beer. It’s about fireworks and family gatherings. It’s about pool parties and horseshoes and carrying your drunken uncle back into the house and hoping he doesn’t throw up on your new rug.
It’s about celebrating everything that is American.
And usually, with every anniversary or birthday, we tend to make sure there are serious tunes available. Some of us bring out the heavy artillery, speakers large enough that, if each were hollowed out, could house a family of four. They belong on the patio, because the neighbors need to get with the program.
Home entertainment systems. Car radios. Portable CD players. Ipods. Live bands. Whatever the delivery method, the Fourth of July is not complete without some beautiful noise that puts the occasion in context.
With that in mind, the following is a collection of songs that are uniquely American. Some are unabashedly patriotic. Others express a love for country but a disappointment in certain aspects. Still others are included because, simply put, they capture the essence of what it means to be American.
So crack open a beer, grab a drumstick, position your lawn chair a safe distance from the horseshoe pit, turn the volume knob up to 11, and listen with pride.
“America The Beautiful,” Ray Charles
Katharine Lee Bates was an English teacher from Massachusetts who decided to trek across the continent in 1893. The view from Pike’s Peak inspired her to write a poem, which was eventually published in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1904. Later, it was joined with an existing tune, Samuel Augustus Ward’s “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem.” Many have covered the song since then, but no one makes “amber waves of grain” and “purple mountain majesties” seem quite so vivid as the late, great Ray Charles. Never has a recorded song sounded as if it were being shouted from the highest mountaintop as this.
“This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie At first, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie sings about the splendor of redwood forests and gulfstream waters. By the end, he’s lamenting the plight of poor people lined up at a relief office, wondering aloud if this land really is meant for you and me. Over the years, the more cynical and depressing verses have been suppressed by those who worried about a possible Communistic undercurrent; blacklisted in 1950, Guthrie insisted he was not a Communist, but did admit, “I been in the red all my life.” The power of this song is in the potential Guthrie sees for greatness in our country and how too often that potential is undermined by greed and complacency. It was written in 1940, partly as a retort to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which Guthrie felt was highly simplistic. In fact, Guthrie’s original title was “God Blessed America.”
“Back in the U.S.A.,” Chuck Berry If you’ve ever traveled overseas for any length of time, you’ll know that it’s nice to be away, but it’s even nicer to get home. Berry rejoices in this upbeat rocker about returning to the land where “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.” It was not particularly successful when released in 1959, but Linda Ronstadt covered it in 1978 and it lasted eight weeks on the charts, rising to as high as No. 16. Also, Paul McCartney and the Beatles used this as inspiration for “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Berry counted his major influences as Nat King Cole, Muddy Waters and pianist Louis Jordan, but he in turn impacted the careers of myriad rock-and-rollers, which is a good reason for them to exclaim, “I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the U.S.A.”
“America,” Neil Diamond
A 1980 remake of “The Jazz Singer” was Diamond’s movie acting debut. The picture did not do boffo box office, although his performance was deemed credible by most. But the song “America” helped the soundtrack album sell more than a million copies. It is an anthem that salutes the fascination and longing immigrants have for our country and their determination to reach our shores and begin new lives. “Everywhere around the world, they’re coming to America; everytime that flag’s unfurled, they’re coming to America.” He later would perform the song at the Statue of Liberty centenary celebrations.
“What's Going On,” Marvin Gaye
This will never be confused with “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but it is one of those rare songs that captures the essence, mood and mindset of the entire nation during a particular time period. By 1971, Gaye had grown tired of crooning light romantic Motown fare like “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby.” The song is about the homecoming of Gaye’s brother, Frank, in 1971 after a tour of duty in Vietnam, and how America was suddenly a different place. It was a crossroads for the U.S., as well as a watershed time in Gaye’s career. The words, “You know we’ve got to find a way, to bring some lovin’ here today” transcend the era and have become emblematic of both Marvin Gaye and his country.
“God Bless the U.S.A.,” Lee GreenwoodCountry-western stars have a particular knack for creating successful patriotic anthems, but Greenwood might just be No. 1 on that lengthy list. This song originally was released in 1984, but it was re-released in 1991 during the Gulf War and became a hit. Greenwood loves his country and makes no bones about it: “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free, and I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.” Some confuse the title, though, often identifying it by the catchy phrase, “I’m proud to be an America.” Either way, it’s on a lot of lips around the Fourth of July.
“Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce SpringsteenIn 1984, Ronald Reagan was campaigning for reelection and wanted to appeal to the working class. So he invoked the name of Bruce Springsteen at campaign stops, citing him as the hero of an American success story who rose from humble beginnings. The title cut from the album “Born in the U.S.A.” thus became the president’s unofficial campaign song. But it’s not about what Reagan was selling. Rather, it tells of the frustrations and disillusionment of a Vietnam veteran when he returns home and discovers that America isn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for him. That pessimism is captured beautifully in the line, “I’m ten years burning down the road, nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.” Thus, it has come to be regarded both as a celebration of a great nation as well as an indictment of it.
“American Pie,” Don McLeanEverybody loves a good mystery. Folks are still debating the meaning of the lyrics to this 1971 hit — and the sly McLean has been little help. Sure, some of it is easy. The most obvious reference is to “the day the music died,” referring to February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper perished in the crash of a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza near Clear Lake, Iowa, while they were touring together. But the beauty of this song is that it is dreamy, hopeful, wistful and crammed with colorful cultural references (“Jack Flash sat on a candlestick” or “the Jester on the sidelines in a cast.”) For music lovers especially, “American Pie” represents the American Dream. And, of course, the American Dream can mean so many different things to so many different people — just like this song.