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 411mania » Music » Columns

The 411 Music Top 5 07.02.13: The Top 5 Patriotic Songs
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 07.02.2013


Criteria: This one probably should be a mystery of why we went with it this week. With the fourth of July coming, songs that inspire patriotism seemed like a good option to go with. The criteria was simple: the song could be about any country as long as it was a song inspiring national pride. Since it is a one-off list, I'll include my caveat here that I stuck with popular music and not traditional performances.

Honorable Mention: James Brown - "Living In America," Elton John - "Philadelphia Freedom," Billy Ray Cyrus - "Some Gave All"

5. Lee Greenwood - "God Bless the USA"

So before I get too far into my list, I should point one thing out; I am not a country music fan as a rule. There are some old-school country artists that I like and a very small handful of newer artists, but generally I prefer my country not to sound like it's rock or pop. I'm also not one to typically go all out for over the top patriotism. (This is why you will not see Toby Keith anywhere remotely near this list.) That being said, Lee Greenwood's 1984 hit is pretty much the iconic standard by which all country patriotic songs should measure themselves, and not including it on this list would be completely unfair. Greenwood once said that it was a song that he had wanted to write his whole life, about America and how "we just need to be more united." The song isn't about America kicking ass overseas or anything jingoistic like that; it's about being proud of and appreciating the benefits of living here, and honoring those who fought and died for those rights. There's nothing wrong with those sentiments. Unsurprisingly the song made a huge comeback in the wake of the September 11th attacks and if you ask me, it was a hell of a lot better a theme song for the country that "Courtesy Of the Red, White and Blue." That song, while certainly not an invalid emotional response, advocated violence as a reaction; Greenwood's song advocated unity. You be the judge.

4. Woody Guthrie - "This Land Is Your Land"

In 1940, Woody Guthrie decided that he'd had enough of Irving Berlin's song "God Bless America." Guthrie, a folk singer who was just starting to become known, had just made a trip across the country from California to New York and had heard singer Kate Smith perform the patriotic song one too many times on the radio. Guthrie decided to write his own critical response to the song, which he considered unrealistic and complacent. In doing so, he ended up creating one of the most-well known folk songs and one of the more beloved musical pieces of Americana ever made. "This Land Is Your Land" was originally titled "God Blessed America for Me," and of course that theme is obvious throughout the lyrics. Guthrie describes several evocative images of America that are now often among the first that come to people's mind when they think of America in a patriotic way: ribbons of highway, wheat fields waving, redwood forests and so on. The song has been covered by countless individuals and used for many different purposes and causes; Guthrie himself varied the lyrics at time to fit his own political beliefs. None of these have been as enduring though as the original, recorded in 1944 and standing the test of time as perhaps the most famous song about the USA.

3. John Mellencamp - "Small Town"

I was born, raised and still live in the west suburbs of Portland, Oregon. I would not consider where I live to be a small town, and certainly not of the level that John Mellencamp sang about in 1985. However, not far away from where I live is an area that is distinctly similar to the agrarian towns that this song invokes and in fact, I have always felt a connection to this song even if I'm not living "out in the boonies," so to speak. Mellencamp was, along with certain other artists, the voice of America in the 1980s. While music was branching out in several different ways and the US was still stuck in the Cold War, Mellencamp and his contemporaries gave us songs like "Jack and Diane" and "Pink Houses," which extolled the virtues not necessarily of America, but of something more important: Americans. This song in particular, written about his experiences growing up and living in small towns in Indiana, speaks in an overreaching way about the great things that come out of the parts of America that aren't Los Angeles or New York, Washington D.C or Detroit. And even better, it does so in a way that is quite nonjudgmental. It doesn't say that small town living is better than big city life; it merely says that small town living is good enough for him. That's just one more thing about the song that gives Americans something to aspire to.

2. Ray Charles - "America The Beautiful"

Katharine Lee Bates' poem, turned into a song by Samuel A. Ward, is one of the most beloved and popular patriotic songs about America. It has even been put forward more than once as a potential replacement to "The Star Spangled Banner" as our national anthem. It is a song that almost everyone recognizes instantly and even more than "This Land is Your Land," it has been covered countless times by more people than I would have room to mention here. One of the most popular and enduring by far though is that of Ray Charles. Charles' soulful rendition of the classic song is still played today at sporting events, and for good reason. Although many have covered the song, a very, very select few have even come close to instilling the emotion and skill into it that Charles did. Charles' rendition is somewhat unique in that he always tended to do the third verse, the one which implores Americans to live up to the ideals of the country and honor those who died for them. There's something wonderful in that, and it makes me favor his version over others.

1. Jimi Hendrix - "The Star Spangled Banner"

It often seems in the modern day that the national anthem of the USA can't get any respect. Many professional singers have botched the notoriously-difficult song, most recently Christina Aguilera who screwed up the words in the fourth line before the 2011 Super Bowl. This is a common reason given for many supporters of "America the Beautiful" replacing it as the national anthem, but if you ask me all they need to do is play this to silence them. Jimi Hendrix is not what many would consider to be a model American. He was a subpar soldier during his stint in the Army and was discharged after a year, he is widely known for his use of recreational drugs, he shocked and offended the moral Right and he died by drunkenly choking to death on his own vomit. And yet when you hear him play--not sing, but play--the national anthem from Woodstock, you hear more passion and more meaning than a hundred classically-trained patriots who have performed it at sporting events combined. There's just something magical about the way Hendrix plays the song. It's an improbable sort of performance that shouldn't work, but it does. Think about it. Try to imagine that you had never heard Hendrix's performance. Now imagine someone told you that Slash performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" in front of a bunch of metalheads at Ozzfest. "Patriotic" is probably not the first phrase that would come to mind. But with Hendrix there is something incredibly inspiring about how he did it. There are no words (and those no botched lyrics), but it carries just as much meaning as any sung performance of the song. That's damned impressive.

The Final Word

As always, the last thoughts come from you, the reader. We're merely unpaid monkeys with typewriters and Wikipedia. Here's what you need to do: List your Top Five for this week's topic on the comment section using the following format:

5. Artist - "Song": Why you chose it
4. Artist - "Song": Why you chose it
3. Artist - "Song": Why you chose it
2. Artist - "Song": Why you chose it
1. Artist - "Song": Why you chose it


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