A History of Patriotic Music

What is Patriotic Music?

Ancient Patriotic MusicPatriotic music is typically defined as music which expresses love or devotion to one’s country, but there are some problems with this definition. The first is that to those who lived for the thousands of years before the first nations existed, many of the songs they sang, performed and enjoyed would have served the same purpose as what we refer to as patriotic music today. They simply weren’t members of what we would define as a nation. Odes to heroes put to music would have been integral parts of their cultures. An additional problem is with music that existed before a culture formed a nation. To find a relatively modern example, we need look no further than the United States.

Colonial American Patriotic Music

In the 18th century, as the American Colonies began to reject Great Britain’s claims over them, some popular songs were repurposed as patriotic music to celebrate and enforce the American Colonial beliefs in Natural Rights. America’s first patriotic song was probably ‘The Liberty Song’ in 1768 which was about the ‘Sons of Liberty’ and sung to the popular British melody ‘Heart of Oak.’ Another well-known case was that of “Yankee Doodle Dandy“, which was originally written by a British doctor to mock the American Colonists. Patriots soon adopted the piece, proudly making it their own. Almost two hundred and fifty years later, there is hardly an American who does not know it and consider it one of our first patriotic songs. Perhaps one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs of the period is “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier“. It was sung by Americans and British alike during the American War for Independence with the ancient Irish melody “Shule Agra” being brought from Ireland by some of our earliest colonists. (See my video “The Irish and Scotch-Irish in the American Revolution“)

Patriotism vs. Nationalism in America

Patriotic music in America differs from patriotic music elsewhere because in the United States there is important distinction between the meaning of patriotism and that of nationalism. (See my article ‘What is a Patriot?‘ for details.) Elsewhere, patriotism and nationalism are usually used synonymously. In fact, most dictionary definitions make no distinction between the two terms. The current online version of Merriam Webster for example, defines them this way:

patriotism: love for or devotion to one’s country
nationalism: loyalty and devotion to a nation

The original 1828 Merriam Webster’s dictionary’s definition defines patriotism as:

patriotism: Love of one’s country; the passion which aims to serve one’s country, either in defending it from invasion, or protecting its rights and maintaining its laws and institutions in vigor and purity. patriotism is the characteristic of a good citizen, the noblest passion that animates a man in the character of a citizen. 

For Americans, nationalism and patriotism are very different concepts. Nationalism is supporting or celebrating a country and (generally speaking) its government’s policies. Patriotism, on the other hand, celebrates the uniquely American principles enshrined in our founding documents: The Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights and The United States Constitution. As all Americans (should) know, these documents hold that individual rights are granted by God, that government is the child of the citizenry (not the other way around), that government’s primary duty is to protect individual rights, that the Citizenry has a duty to guard their freedom jealously (usually from government), and that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it“.  These principles were widely held in the American Colonies before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Therefore, American Patriotic music existed before the United States did. 

Early American Patriotic Music

Evolution of Patriotic MusicAs in other forms of music, patriotic music sometimes develops gradually, only being adopted many years later. In a time before music was copyrighted, lyrics were either rewritten to serve a different purpose or a new poem would be put to the melody of an existing song, sometimes many years later. Philip Phile’s instrumental piece ‘The Presidents March’ or ‘Washington’s March’ had been played at President Washington’s inauguration. In 1798, Joseph Hopkinson rearranged the piece and added the words, naming it ‘Hail Columbia‘, which was America’s unofficial national anthem for many years.

In 1814 while watching the British bombard a Maryland Fort, Francis Scott Key wrote his famous poem which he named ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry’. After being published in newspapers for many years, it was eventually put to the music of a well-known British drinking song entitled “To Anacreon in Heaven” by composer John Stafford Smith. Over many decades, the song grew in popularity until in 1926, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that it should be played at all national events. It was adopted in 1931 as the “The Star Spangled Banner”, the United States’ National Anthem.

The well-loved ‘My Country Tis of Thee‘ was written by Samuel Francis Smith in 1831 while translating German song books in seminary school. One piece, ‘God Bless Our Native Land’ caught his attention and was said to have been set to the melody of the British song “God Save the King”. Smith was inspired by the connection between patriotism and faith and created the now famous American version.

The Civil War to WWII

Patriotic music says the things that are on the hearts and minds of the citizenry at the time while eliciting national pride and rallying the Citizenry in common causes.  From the American War for Independence to modern times, every generation’s music represents its own priorities.

The popular Civil War song ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ was sung by the Union and Confederacy alike and gave soldiers hope about life after the war was over and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic‘ is still considered one of America’s most loved patriotic songs from the Civil War era. 

John Philip Sousa wrote ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ in 1896 while he was returning to America on a ship from Europe. It was played during the Spanish-American War and would eventually become known as America’s National March. At West Point Military Academy in 1908, Brigadier General Edmund Louis “Snitz” Gruber wrote ‘The Caissons Go Rolling Along’. By the start of WWI it became a popular rallying cry for the American public. In 1917, actor and composer George M. Cohan read the news of America’s declaration of War on Germany and started humming a melody that would become his famous ‘Over There‘, a distinctly patriotic American song that also motivated a generation of young men to take the fight to Europe. Both songs are still recognized and loved as patriotic songs today.

Patriotic Songs During WWII

WWII patriotic musicDuring WWII, patriotic songs were written in many musical genres including Big Band, Swing, Jazz, Country and popular songs. Some include ‘Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition‘, the Andrew Sisters’ ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy‘ and the 1942 song, ‘Rosie the Riveter’, which celebrates the contribution of so many of America’s women who worked tirelessly in production lines during the war effort, changing the role of women in America permanently.

But the years leading up to America’s entry into WWII brought chaos as the Great Depression raged on and competing world political philosophies inevitably clashed. Even before the patriotic music of the WWII unified our Republic and served to celebrate our founding principles of freedom, individualism and private property rights, communism was at work inside our borders in hopes of eliminating them for the promise of a better world it could never produce. Increasingly, with the birth of what would be known as “protest music”, what qualified as patriotic music became more subjective and more contentious.

The Rise of Protest Songs

CominternIn 1935, Moscow hosted the 7th World Congress of the Communist International (Comintern). It is most known for its ‘Populist Front’ which sought to influence Western societies’ individual rights-based beliefs through art, literature and music. This was a change in communist policy towards the institutions the party had until then denounced. In the United States, this was to be accomplished through various communist groups such as the American Communist Party and the Young Communist League. Among these new musicians were two American songwriters who accomplished more for the communist cause than any others, perhaps to date. By rewriting the lyrics of traditional music in the public domain, they created a new genre called ‘folk music’ which spoke to the American “proletariat” during this difficult time and they did it long before the phenomenon of ‘protest songs’ became commonplace.

After hearing singer Kate Smith’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America‘ one too many times on the radio, in the winter of 1940, Woodie Guthrie (a socialist associated with several communist groups) wrote his song ‘This Land is Your Land’ in response. He had spent years travelling around the United States and found the patriotic song out of touch with both the humiliating effects of the Great Depression and the way some employers treated their workers. While the song is often considered quintessentially American, two stanzas in the original version of the song are worth noting:

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing –
God blessed America for me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering
if God blessed America for me?

The other was singer/songwriter Pete Seeger who joined the Young Communist League in 1936 when he was 17. His 1955 antiwar song ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ was inspired by a traditional Cossak folk song. He took some lyrics directly from it and used a melody borrowed from an Irish song. He was under investigation since the 1940s for his communist ties and was blacklisted only a few years later. Eventually, however, he became a symbol of protest songs, playing Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” for Barack Obama’s inauguration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2009.  Though both songwriters loved the United States and viewed themselves as patriotic missionaries trying to secure justice for the oppressed by promoting ideas such as labor unions, both became pawns to a threat on our founding principles unseen in history.    

The Start of the Cold War (1950s)

Cold War Patriotic MusicBy America’s entry into WWII against Nazi Germany and national socialist Italy, Woodie Guthrie had become a staunch enemy of fascism though few Americans knew of his communist leanings. Far fewer had ever read Karl Marx despite the philosophy antithetical to American principles making inroads with intellectuals at the highest levels of American society. Although unknown at the time (and to many even today), President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second-term Vice-President, Henry Wallace, was a K.G.B. agent (who both Guthrie and Seeger had campaigned for in the 40s). Communists had been systematically infiltrating key positions in American society at that time, particularly in Hollywood. In 1932, New York Times’ journalist Walter Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer prize for a series of articles he had written praising the Soviet Union while intentionally omitting Stalin’s genocide against the Ukrainian people. Despite the murder of at least 3-5 million Ukrainians, communism’s public image was protected. The award has never been retracted.

Cold War Patriotic SongsDuring WWII, F.D.R.’s administration chose not to bring attention to the philosophical distinctions of communism as the Soviets were needed as allies to defeat Germany’s national socialists, referring to Stalin as “Uncle Joe” to the American Citizenry. But after WWII, with the start of the Korean War in 1950, Americans began to realize that communism was a direct threat to the personal liberties for which America stood for and had sacrificed so much for since our founding. Jimmie Osborne’s ‘God, Please Protect America‘ was a prayer set to music as the nation braced for war against the communists and Gene Autry’s ‘Old Soldiers Never Die‘, was written about General Douglas McArthur after President Truman removed him from command. The arrest, trial and execution of communist party members Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason in passing America’s atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union shocked the nation. The Iron Curtain, space race, and the very real threat of nuclear war caused most Americans to see socialism, communism and fascism as related collectivist philosophies which were antithetical to the individual rights-based system that had made the United States so free and so successful. The Red Scare culminated with the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee which sought to purge the U.S. of Marxist infiltration. However, the tactics used (particularly by Senator Joseph McCarthy) ignored the same civil liberties government was supposed to protect. In time, Americans concluded they would not support the destruction of citizens’ lives for unsubstantiated accusations but as the Korean War simmered into a stalemate, a new conflict in Asia between freedom and collectivism was beginning in Viet Nam.

Bobby Bare’s 1958 song ‘All American Boy‘ told the story of a young man who buys a guitar, becomes a rock star and then gets drafted while Johnny Horton’s 1959 ‘The Battle of New Orleans’ (written by Jimmy Driftwood) recounted a simpler time in American history. Both songs stayed on the charts for many weeks. Americans were anxious about another possible world war though fairly confident that Marxism had been purged from American institutions. As the politically-charged Folk Music began to gain traction with songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, a new phenomenon of music written for teenagers began to sweep the nation. It would soon become a medium for political discourse unseen in our history. 

The Counter Culture (1960s – 1970s)

Woodstock With the Viet Nam conflict came a national debate about a host of subjects. New musical genres became both artistic and political vehicles to consider questions such as why Americans were fighting and dying in Southeast Asia, the rights of minority groups, and women’s roles in society. With them came a new phenomenon of songs with antiwar messages including Credence Clearwater Revival’s ‘It Ain’t Me‘ (otherwise known as ‘Fortunate Son’) and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On‘. Although contentious to some at the time, few today would argue that these songs were anti-American. With the American distinction between nationalism and patriotism, many feel that exercising one’s First Amendment rights to disagree with national policy in music is exactly what patriotism is. Yet, the majority of the songs about social causes did not celebrate the United States along with their criticism. Therefore, they cannot be considered patriotic songs. And yet this period also brought undeniably patriotic songs like Barry Sadler’s ‘Ballad of the Green Berets’, James Brown’s ‘America Is My Home’ and (perhaps) paratrooper Jimi Hendrix’ iconic electric guitar version of the National Anthem. 

1970s patriotic songs John DenverSince the 1960s, 70s and perhaps 80s, a period which many consider the Golden Age of popular music, what constitutes patriotic music has become even more subjective. Some songs are considered patriotic only at first glance because they either paint vivid artistic descriptions of American life at a particular time, such as Simon & Garfunkel’s  ‘America‘ or Billy Joel’s ‘New York State of Mind‘ or they simply reference American cities or towns, such as The Beach Boy’s ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.‘.  Many of these songs, however wonderful musically, don’t qualify as patriotic music since they have little more than a single reference to something American. Others may seem to be patriotic at first because their lyrics contain “America”, “American”, “U.S.A.” or something related, but were intended to be either partial political commentaries, such as Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl‘ or overtly political songs, rather than celebrations of American values. Some examples include Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.‘, Don Mclean’s ‘American Pie‘, and John Mellencamp’s ‘Pink Houses‘. Many of these songs are remarkable musically, but not patriotic since they fail to celebrate our republic, culture or our founding principles. This distinction becomes clear when one compares the previous examples with John Denver’s ‘Country Roads‘, or Ray Charles’ iconic remake of  ‘America the Beautiful‘ which are from the same period. 

Modern Patriotic Music

Lee GreenwoodExamples of well-known popular patriotic music since the 1980s are rare, such as Lee Greenwood’s inspirational 1984 ‘God Bless the U.S.A.‘ or Darryl Worley’s 2003 ‘Have You Forgotten‘ about the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.. This is not because Americans have become less patriotic but rather because the music industry has changed. The first reason is because by the late 1970s, the music business was run by the generation that had grown up during the 1960s. Gone were the days of the older executives of the 60s experimenting with music they didn’t understand and taking a chance on, as Frank Zappa explained in an interview. The new corporate leaders were sure they knew exactly what the youth wanted and insisted that ‘good music’ addressed social issues while fighting against ‘The Man’. Only they didn’t realize that they had become “The Man”. They viewed patriotic music as hokey and unsophisticated. Though it occasionally surfaced, such as in the Southern Rock of the 70s, it was eventually relegated to one genre: Country Music, home to what they considered the fly-over territory of uneducated conservatives. In time, these same hippies-turned-capitalists, who as teenagers had celebrated Marx, promoted music that advocated government as the solution to every inequity while failing to understand the difference between capitalism and the crony capitalism caused by that constant government expansion. 

The second reason the music business has changed is because increasingly, it has been dominated by a cadre of international corporations and organizations which fight regularly amongst each other to carve out complex legislation and agreements which maximize their profits at the expense of musicians and their art. To do this, they capitalize on the most profitable, risk-free, “cool” subjects such as race, class, climate change and gender issues while simultaneously promoting the violence and misogyny of ‘Gangsta Rap’ without conscience. The money is all that matters now to the point that even the ownership of what was once public domain Folk Music is strictly enforced.

The music business has also changed because these companies, like Hollywood and much of the media, are increasingly accused of having joined forces with Silicon Valley progressives and the Federal Government while being pressured by the Chinese Communist Party to censor opposing viewpoints. As with the communist subversion of the last century, our freedom is being used against us. Political discrimination has become rampant in many aspects of life today making our republic more and more partisan, while leaving little room for the political discourse our founders warned us was necessary for freedom and progress. Once Americans decide that we have grown sufficiently tired of allowing the constant attacks on our principles of tolerance which made our Republic so unique, so successful, so free, future patriotic music will again celebrate our unique dedication to being one from many.

-Matt Fitzgibbons, PatriotMusic.com
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