The tapestry of American patriotic music is as rich and varied as her people. Hymns, marches, national songs, poetry, military themes, and music from the theater, television, and radio combine to reflect the pride and hope embodied in the American Experience. With the celebration of our independence just two days away, my list is about American Patriotic Music. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.
1. America the Beautiful
Katharine Lee Bates wrote the lyrics for "America the Beautiful" while on a lecture trip to Colorado in 1893 after being inspired by a trek up Pike's Peak in a prairie wagon. Originally sung to any tune that fit the lyrics -- "Auld Lang Syne" was the most popular, "America the Beautiful" didn't have its own melody until 1882 when Samuel Augustus Ward, a New Jersey church organist, composed one for it. Thereafter, the song has been sung the way we recognize it now.
2. My Country 'Tis of Thee
While we know that Reverend Samuel Francis Smith wrote the lyrics for this song in 1831, the mystery surrounding the composition of its melody remains unsolved. The tune's first appearance in a verifiable form is in the 1744 tune book, Thesaurus Musicus, printed in England. It has been used mostly for songs honoring kings and became the national anthem in 6 countries before making its way across the ocean to America.
3. Battle Hymn of the Republic
Julia Ward Howe, a staunch abolitionist, rewrote the lyrics to a very popular song among the Union troops during the Civil War. The soldiers called the song "John Brown's Body" in honor of John Brown, the abolitionist killed at Harpers Ferry. But after visiting Washington, D.C. with her husband in 1861 and hearing Union soldiers marching to the tune, Julia determined to write lyrics that better suited the majesty of the music. The end result is the song that we now know and love.
4. When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again
The story of one of the most popular songs of the American Civil War is also the story of the Irish immigrant who wrote it. John Philip Sousa considered Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, an 1848 Irish immigrant and author of the song, "The Father of the American Band." In 1861, Gilmore's band was attached to the 24th Massachusetts Infantry where they served as both musicians and stretcher bearers in some of the most significant Civil War battles including Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Richmond. In 1863, when he was posted to occupied New Orleans, Louisiana, Gilmore composed "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." The song became popular with northerners and southerners alike.
5. You're a Grand Old Flag
I love the story of this song! Written for his stage musical, George Washington, Jr. in 1906, George M. Cohan's inspiration came from a random meeting he had had with a Civil War veteran who, like my great-great grandfather, had fought at Gettysburg. Cohan noticed that the old man was holding a carefully folded but ragged old flag and when the old man saw Cohan looking at it, he said, "She's a grand old rag." That old man's comment about a cherished battle-worn flag became the original title of the song; however, when people objected to the flag being called a "rag," he changed the word to "flag." Maybe if Cohan had explained why he titled the song the way he did, people would have reacted more positively to it because its meaning with the original title and lyric is much more powerful!
6. Hail to the Chief
Did you know that this song, which plays with every formal entrance made by an American president, actually has its origins in a poem written by a Scotsman? Sir Walter Scott's poem, "The Lady of the Lake," tells the story of a Highlands Scottish clan that loses its heritage and land to an imperalist invader (the Brits): "Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances!" The song first came to be associated with presidents when, on February 22, 1815, it was played honor both the deceased George Washington and the end of the War of 1812.
7. Marine's Hymn
The tune for this song actually came from Jacques Offenbach's comic opera Genevieve de Brabant, first staged in 1859. Nobody knows who added the lyrics or when, but at least one verse has been traced to Colonel Henry C. Davis who wrote it during the early part of the twentieth century.
8. Stars and Stripes Forever (check out the video for this one!)
John Philip Sousa was the greatest musical star of his era, combining the charisma and popularity of Leonard Bernstein and The Beatles. He wrote "Stars and Stripes Forever" in 1896, while grieving over the death of his manager. For 25 years, Sousa's band played this song at the end of every concert. "The Stars and Stripes Forever" was declared the National March of the United States in 1987.
9. Yankee Doodle
This is one of America's oldest, and most enduring, marching songs. It was written several years before the American Revolution, but like so many songs of old, its origins aren't clear. What we do know about it is that the song isn't really as patriotic as it seems: it is a British parody of the early American militiamen. "Yankee" comes from "Nankey," a word from a well-known not-so-nice song about Oliver Cromwell that later became the name for American colonists; "Doodle" means a fool or simpleton; "Dandy" is a word used to describe a gentleman of artificial manners, dress, and hairstyle -- in other words, a fake. Put these three words together, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and you have a foolish American colonist who puts on airs. At the battles of Lexington and Concord, the British troops sang the song to make fun of the rag-tag American militiamen.
10. This Land Is Your Land
Woody Guthrie, America's most influential folk musician, wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in 1940 after becoming annoyed with Irving Berlin's song, "God Bless America," which Guthrie thought glossed over the lop-sided distribution of land and wealth that he was observing during the Great Depression and had experienced as a child growing up in Oklahoma. Guthrie's observations accurately reflected the fact that, even in the depths of the Depression, nearly 20 percent of the nation's wealth rested with one percent of its population. Guthrie's personal and musical styles were deeply influenced by his childhood in rural Oklahoma during the Great Depression years, which led him to a hobo life-style, a powerful dislike of greed, and a deep appreciation for the diversity of America's everyday folk.
11. God Bless America
Shortly after becoming an American citizen in 1918, Irving Berlin, already a highly successful popular lyricist and composer, was inducted and stationed at Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island, New York. While stationed there, Berlin convinced his commanding officers to allow him to write a musical comedy that could be used to raise both funds and troop morale, and the original version of this song was part of this production. But after he heard the song, Berlin decided that it was too serious for a comedy and tucked it away for 25 years. On November 10, 1938, contralto Kate Smith introduced the song to America on her CBS radio show that was broadcast from the New York World's Fair. Timing is everything; the song became an instant hit. Berlin generously signed over his royalty money from the song to charity, and the revenues went to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts of America.
12. God Bless the U.S.A.
Lee Greenwood, a country music artist, wrote "God Bless the USA" in 1983 as a patriotic song about his country. When it was originally released, it didn't top the charts; however, it quickly became Greenwood's signature song. When the Amazing Egyptian Dude was sworn in as a U.S. Citizen, this is the song that played in accompaniment to a video showing scenes of what it means to an American. We already knew the song because we have been fans of Greenwood's music for quite some time, so the AED was thrilled when the song blared out from the loudspeakers at the Los Angeles Convention Center on the day that he officially became an American in 1986. If you've never been lucky enough to witness the swearing in of a new American citizen, check out this video; the song & video we saw is at 8:05. I guarantee goosebumps!
13. The Star Spangled Banner
Francis Scott Key put new words to an old song when he wrote what would become the national anthem of the United States of America. In the mid-1760s, a London society of amateur musicians, the Anacreontic Society, commissioned a young church musician, John Stafford Smith, to compose music for material that its president, Ralph Tomlinson, had written. The result was a song called "Anacreon in Heav'n." Its metric difficulty was meant to be the vehicle through which the group's best bariton singer could display his virtuosity and vocal range. Its musical complexity has been compared to the famous "Toreador Song" in Bizet's opera Carmen. The tune appeared in North America before the end of the 18th century where the lyrics were rewritten to include references to Jefferson, Adams, and Liberty. Francis Scott Key was fascinated by the song's unique metrical structure, not found in any other song of the period. That explains why it's so difficult for the average person to sing!
So, how did it become our national anthem? While detained aboard a British ship during the bombardment of Ft. McHenry on September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key witnessed at dawn the failure of the British attempt to take Baltimore. He used this experience to write a poem that asked the question "Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave?" or in modern American English, "Hey, Dude, is that flag still flying?"
Almost immediately Key's poem was published and set to the tune of the "Anacreontic Song." The Secretary of the Navy, on July 26, 1889, designated "The Star Spangled Banner" as the official tune to be played whenever the flag was raised, and Woodrow Wilson chose the song to be played whenever a national anthem was appropriate because we didn't have one yet. It wasn't until March 3, 1931, that the song was made our official anthem by President Herbert Hoover.