Nations are often defined by their music – music has been used for centuries to depict the patriotism and values of a state or country, and America is no exception. The history of America’s patriotic music in particular is fascinating, and traces the country’s evolution from British offshoot, to bombastic independent nation, all the way through the difficulties of the Civil War, two World Wars, Vietnam and beyond. More than just anthems, American patriotic music allows music historians to track the national consciousness at the time at which these songs were penned and popularized – the way people sing about American is how they think about it as well.
Perhaps the most popular and well-known patriotic songs speak of America’s desire to perceive itself as a powerful, enduring nation. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was penned by Francis Scott Key as a poem in 1814, following the attack on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 (Svejda, 1969). Key wrote the poem shortly after enduring the battle himself, where he saw that the American flag that flew above the fort survived the intense bombardment by the British; this seemed to Key to be a perfect metaphor for America’s perseverance and fortitude. The tune itself was derived from a song called “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular British hymn that already enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the United States after being adapted to fit Key’s poem (Svejda, 1969). Throughout the 19th century, it became more and more popular until Woodrow Wilson decreed in 1916 that “The Star-Spangled Banner” would become the national anthem. By making this song, inspired by the symbolic endurance of America against oppressive national forces, the anthem of America, it acts as a thesis statement for the nation.
It is quite interesting that America would model so many of its famous songs after British hymns and music; it seems to be a symptom or consequence of America’s origins as a British colony .What’s more, the appropriation of these tunes for American purposes also evinces a certain nationalism that trumps any goodwill towards Britain. This is most clearly seen in Samuel Francis Smith’s tune “America,” or “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” – adapting new lyrics over the existing British anthem “God Save the Queen (or King),” Smith was inspired by the German tune “God Bless Our Native Land” to create a similar anthem for the country (Burnham and Hartnett 225). Using the British theme almost seemed spiteful towards England – a now-excised fifth verse for the song is explicitly anti-British:
“No more shall tyrants hereWith haughty steps appearAnd soldier bandsNo more shall tyrants dreadAbove the patriotic deadNo more our blood be shedBy alien hands” (Smith, in Branham and Hartnett 64).
This verse was excised so as to not inflame tensions between England and the United States, but Smith’s inclusion of this sentiment denotes a particularly fascinating attitude in this song. For the majority of the song, the lyrics illustrate America’s history, the landing of the Pilgrims, the loveliness of the countryside and so on – of particular mention is the American value of freedom and God’s favor of America as a nation. However, the fact that Smith included these other words is evidence that not only did he want to sing America’s praises, he wished to compare it favorably to Britain. This would not be the last time that “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” would be appended or changed to suit the tenor of the times; many verses have been added or used in the song to suit the needs of the author. Additional verses were added for Washington’s bicentennial in 1932 to tell the ‘full’ story of America, and even abolitionists would add verses to it in order to satirically criticize slavery and liken it to the American experience (Branham and Hartnett 142). To that end, this song in particular is a microcosm of the ability for songs to change to reflect the times, especially when it comes to patriotism.
Another important patriotic song for America, perhaps its unofficial anthem, is “America the Beautiful,” a song written by Katharine Lee Bates after a cross-country train trip to Colorado in 1893 (Bates and Qualey, 2003). Throughout the train trip, she was able to see the World’s Fair in Chicago, with the “alabaster” buildings, and the “amber waves of grain” on the Fourth of July as her train passed through Kansas (Bates and Qualey, 2003). Colorado Springs showed her the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, splitting the country between flat plains and mountaintops. Because of these experiences, she chose to write a poem about what she perceived was America’s beauty and diversity, which became the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.” The tune was then adapted into a song, using the music from a hymn known as “Materna,” by Samuel Ward, in 1882. It was not until 1910 that the first combined publication of song and lyrics was published (Bates and Qualey, 2003). This song, unlike the stalwart battle cry of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” reveals the more feminine, sensitive loveliness of the American landscape, citing its diverse geology and architecture as the reason it should be worshipped. America’s resolve may make it last, but according to Bates and “America the Beautiful,” the loveliness of the country itself is what makes it worth protecting.
The American Civil War was a particularly interesting time in the world of American patriotic music – this time, there were two distinct nations purporting to be American, yet had distinctly different values that needed to be expressed in their music. When the Confederacy split from the Union, they felt the need to start cultivating a new sense of Confederate nationalism: “Wartime music is the most striking example of the importance of southern orality in the creation of Confederate nationalism. The production of songbooks and sheet music outstripped every other area of southern publishing during the war, expanding dramatically in response to popular demand” (Faust 18). Because the South was beginning its new nation under the auspices of war, there were some limitations in ways to use music to establish the new southern ideology. The national confederate anthem, “God Save the South,” was created, but songs like “Dixie” would prove more popular, even in the Union; the first song written for the Civil War was called “The First Gun is Fired,” and came out mere days after the Battle of Fort Sumter (Faust 67).
Much of the music that came about at this time was inspired by war-ready instruments, like drums, fifes and the like; because of the smaller scale and ambition of these works, it can be said that the Civil War was the birth of the folk music movement (Faust 19). Songs like “Rock Me to Sleep, Mother” were used much more than patriotic anthems, to provide comfort and solace to war-torn soldiers, as well as ironic folk songs like “Exempt Me from the War” (Faust 19). Battles were commemorated by Southern ballads and songs, and generals and diplomats often had their own anthems, like the “Mason and Slidell Quickstep” to “honor thee Confederate diplomats captured by the Yankees” (19). These songs provided a shift from more unified, war-hungry anthems to personal stories commemorating times, places and people, a consequence of a quickly-escalating war that left little time to provide a sense of nationalism to the people of the Confederacy.
As America entered the world stage and fought with other nations in the two World Wars, their patriotic music changed quite a bit as well, reflecting the uncertain nature of America joining their allied partners in fighting across the Atlantic.The popular songs of the era of World War I were used as propaganda and morale-boosting efforts during the war. Here, songs ranged from isolationist songs to war-involvement songs – songs like “(Whether Friend or Foe, They’re Brothers) When They’re Dreaming of Home Sweet Home” downplayed the need for America to get involved in the war (Vogel 35). However, once America was involved in the war, songs turned more toward victory, such as “You Keep Sending ‘Em Over and We’ll Keep Knocking ‘Em Down” (Vogel 64). Recruitment songs were often found during this time, as patriotism was explicitly equated with military service (e.g. “Keep the Home Fires Burning”) (Vogel 59).
After World War II, and the start of the Cold War, it became more important than ever to prove one’s allegiance to America in the face of the Red Scare. The Pledge of Allegiance was more strictly observed during this time, as PR initiatives such as Freedom Weeks made it more of a requirement to observe American traditions in order to assert democracy and American ideals. It was not until 1942 that the Pledge of Allegiance was adopted by Congress, and in the wake of the conservatism of the 1950s, the phrase “under God” was added to emphasize a loyalty to traditional Christian values which were the status quo at the time (Fried 89). American Communists started to emerge as a movement as well, using Soviet patriotic music to emphasize an American loyalty to their Communist brothers (Fried 28). This demonstrated a reflexive desire by America to defend its perceived values against Communism, which itself was becoming present and expressing itself through its own music.
Music and patriotism was shaped dramatically in the midst of the Vietnam War; the counterculture was at its height, and protest songs were rampant, as the huge protest movement against the Vietnam War had Americans creating distinctly anti-American songs. Jimi Hendrix’s cover of the Bob Dylan folk song, “All Along the Watchtower,” adapts the song from Dylan’s mellow and malicious folk song to an exuberant, angry rock anthem for young people in the late 1960s. Under Jimi’s alterations, the instrumentation turns ominous and aggressive, his exuberant vocals sounding almost pleading. The song contains a limited chord structure and longer-than-usual musical sections, as well as unsettling improvisation and call-and-response from the vocals and guitar.The combination of all these musical elements make the listener, especially one who was young in 1968 (when the song was released), feel overwhelmed and frustrated, likely with the circumstances of the world around them. This song perfectly typifies those feelings, while at the same time serving as a call to action towards the forces behind the injustices they see.
The trapped feeling elicited from the instrumentation is expressed perfectly in the lyrics of the first verse of the song:
“’There must be some kind of way out of here,’
Said the Joker to the Thief.
There’s too much confusion –
I can’t get no relief.”
The first line is a phrase many youth must have thought given the circumstances of their environment – the smothering expectations of their parents and the dangerous duty of their government made many young people in that decade uncertain as to their options and future. Some did find a ‘way out of here’; draft dodgers fled to Canada, Sweden, and Mexico, or went into hiding somewhere in the States. Until Jimmy Carter pardoned all Vietnam draft dodgers in 1979, there was also a stigma that a draft dodger was a coward, at least among older Americans (Grunenberg et al., 2005). Regarding the chaos of the antiwar protests and horrifying information that was coming out of the media, the lyric ‘there’s too much confusion’ rang true for a lot of Americans. Like the Joker in ‘Watchtower,’ recipients of the draft couldn’t get any relief from inevitable service in Vietnam. The same is true of African-Americans – the assassination of two of their most influential leaders (MLK and RFK), as well as the brutality of the police response to their outcry for equal rights would have left some blacks in the ‘60s confused and seeking relief (Grunenberg et al., 2005). These and other popular songs in the 1960s signaled a time in which America was dividing between dedication to its country and dedication to individual causes, leading to protest song movements and this sense of rebellion.
In conclusion, American patriotic music has changed dramatically since the country’s inception; American anthems began by talking about the might of America’s military, alternating between that and reveling in the beauty of America’s natural wonders. Potshots would often be taken at the British, slavery, and other institutions through the changing and adaptation of existing patriotic songs to suit the ideologies of changing times. The Civil War brought about, for a short time, a subset of America that tried to establish its identity through song, simply leading to the establishment of folk music as a more intimate way to establish national identity. While World Wars I and II used that to establish songs that alternated between interventionist and isolationist songs, the 60s and the hippie movement quickly turned against American nationalism in favor of a more universal push toward peace and the counterculture. To that end, charting the trajectory of American patriotic music is to see the shift from unified nationalism to a more individualized sense of values.
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Grunenberg, Christoph, and Jonathan Harris. Summer of Love: Psychedelic Art, Social Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s. Liverpool University Press, 2005. Print.
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History, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, 1969.
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