Independence Day is fast upon us, and if you’re like me, that means you’re planning what patriotic American music to play at your cookout or family gathering. I mean, I’m not literally doing a cookout, because I live in Texas and it’s a bazillion degrees out. But I do enjoy making a good themed playlist.
Problem is, you likely don’t own much patriotic music. Besides Sousa marches, the national anthem, songs people think are the national anthem and that one Lee Greenwood tune…what even is patriotic music?
You could take the easy route and play any American music. (For that matter, you could take the super easy route and play literally any music, and no one at your cookout or indoor air conditioned food-eating event would bat an eye, but I’m writing an important blog post here, so don’t do that!) Sure, any American music would do, but this being HPB and all, let’s dig deeper in the crates and find some music that celebrates America, but perhaps not in the obvious flag-waving ways.
Woody Guthrie – This Land is Your Land: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 1
Woody Guthrie is synonymous with America and its folk music, but in the great American tradition of free thinking, he was sometimes critical of the land he loved. Case in point: “This Land is Your Land,” which occupies rarefied air as one of America’s most familiar patriotic tunes despite the fact that it was written as a sarcastic rejoinder to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie was so tired of hearing Berlin’s song on the radio that he penned his own ditty with the original tongue-in-cheek title, “God Blessed America For Me.” It had a couple of politically charged verses that are often left out, and you can hear that version on this Guthrie compilation along with a couple dozen of his other songs.
Paul Robeson – Ballad for Americans
Paul Robeson was one of the most famous African-Americans of the 20th century, well known as a concert artist, stage and film star and political activist for labor and civil rights causes. He applied his distinct bass-baritone voice to spirituals, classical music, folk songs and political songs, and there’s lots of great stuff in this collection. Most interesting is the title song, a 10-minute cantata for soloist, chorus and orchestra that outlines American history up to the time of its 1940 recording. It name-checks Washington and Lincoln but also celebrates the working man and pulls no punches about the darker side of America, mentioning lynchings and calling out political windbags and carpetbaggers. It’s a little corny and dated, but Robeson’s voice is a marvel, and the message of the piece resonates even in 2018.
Schoolhouse Rock – America Rock
Like all members of Generation X, my official schooling was supplemented by the original run of Schoolhouse Rock, the educational animated video series that ran on ABC’s Saturday morning programming from 1973 to 1985. The series was the brainchild of adman David McCall, who noticed that his son couldn’t remember math facts but knew the words to all the current rock hits. The America Rock series of shorts, which covered history and civics, aired during 1975 and 1976 to coincide with America’s bicentennial. Schoolhouse Rock used serious songwriting talent, including jazz guys Dave Frishberg (“I’m Just a Bill”) and the recently departed Bob Dorough (“The Shot Heard Round the World”). “The Preamble” was composed by Lynn Ahrens, who would become a major writer of Broadway musicals. Play this for your 4th of July party and watch the 50-year-olds sing along.
Bill Frisell – Have a Little Faith
The guitarist Bill Frisell gets filed under jazz, but his music often defies genre. A veteran of the NYC downtown scene, he’s completely at home in the avant-garde but also shows a strong affinity for the simplest of folk tunes. His playing has a deep sense of Americana and even exhibits a country twang at times. On this album from 1993, he salutes American composers, serving up off-kilter but respectful renditions of Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” suite and Charles Ives’s “Three Places in New England.” There’s also John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March,” delivered with distorted guitar and a klezmer feel. Frisell also covers a Madonna song. Only in America!
Paul Simon in Concert – Live Rhymin’
Paul Simon is one of America’s greatest pop songwriters, and on this live record you can find two songs to bring poignancy to any patriotic playlist: “American Tune” was written early in Simon’s solo career and reflects the uncertainty of the Watergate years. For all the song’s melancholy, it ends on a positive note: “tomorrow’s gonna be another working day,” and “it’s all right, it’s all right.” Then there’s “America,” which first appeared on Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 Bookends album. In lilting 6/8 time Simon sings of young lovers on a Greyhound bus searching for their version of the American dream.
Charlie Haden – American Dreams
Like Frisell, the Missouri-born bassist Charlie Haden is another jazz legend who always had country in his sound. He spent his childhood performing on the radio with his family’s country band, and he carried those influences with him into jazz; he famously quoted the folk tune “Old Joe Clark” when soloing on an Ornette Coleman record. On American Dreams, from 2002, Haden adds lush strings to a jazz quartet as he evokes the cinematic beauty of his homeland through the plaintive title track and other originals. There’s some filler on the album, which can sound a bit like easy-listening at times, but I’m a sucker for Haden’s sappy but gorgeous rendition of “America the Beautiful.”