The Surprising Stories Behind America’s Favorite Patriotic Songs
Born in the U.S.A.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” has always featured at political rallies for both Republicans and Democrats. But the true meaning of the song – which seems hidden behind Springsteen’s wailing refrain of “Born in the USA” – is anything but My Country, Right or Wrong. Springsteen opens the song by announcing the narrator was “born in a dead man’s town. The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.” This narrator goes on to Vietnam, where he has been sent to “go and kill the Yellow man.” Springsteen laments the treatment of veterans when they returned: “Come back home to the refinery / Hiring man said “son if it was up to me” Went down to see my V.A. man / He said “son, don’t you understand”. Here, Springsteen is judging the entire Vietnam War and what it cost the veterans who fought it. Curiously, his anti-war lyrics are overshadowed by the powerful nationalistic refrain of “Born in the U.S.A.”
This Land is Your Land
Woody Guthrie hated the song “God Bless America,” by Irving Berlin, particularly as performed by Kate Smith. The folk singer got so sick of hearing it on the radio during the 1930’s that he composed a sarcastic response, “God Blessed America For Me,” to the tune of a Carter’s song. Guthrie eventually dropped the title and gave it the one we’re all familiar with. Written in 1940, Guthrie didn’t do anything with the song for the next four years. Its original lyrics included the following indictment of private property:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me / The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing / This land was made for you and me.
Guthrie wrote the song as a bitter reflection of the Great Depression. He recorded it in the mid-1940’s, but by the time it was released in the 1950’s, America had turned to MCcarthyism to attack people who criticized capitalism. The singers who consequently made the tune famous cut the radical lyrics. However, Guthrie’s original recording ended thusly:
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.
Leaving no doubt about his intentions with the song.
God Bless the U.S.A.
The same year that Springsteen was critiquing the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the economic struggles of working people, country singer Lee Greenwood release “God Bless the U.S.A.” Greenwood actually wrote the song in response to the death of 269 people when Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down by the Soviet Union in 1983. The plane was charting a course from New York to South Korea. Greenwood said his ballad was to inspire unity. It became his biggest hit and it was revived in 1991 during the first Gulf War, and again in 2001 after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Greenwood’s song is often described as apolitical, featuring a man who says that even if he lost everything, he’s still choose America and freedom. However, Greenwood’s song was put to conservative political purposes from the start. It was played for Ronald Reagan at the 1984 Republican National Convention. Greenwood’s original video featured a man who loses his family farm but still loves America, a counterpoint to Springsteen’s commentary that the conditions of refineries and family farms that hurt American regular Joes is bad; to Greenwood, losing the family farm somehow inspires even more love of country. It’s much closer to a “my country right or wrong” statement than “Born in the U.S.A.”
Tie a Yellow Ribbon
The saccharine song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” was released by Tony Orlando and Dawn in 1973 and it became a worldwide hit. Written by L. Russell Brown and Irwin Levine, it tells the tale of a returning soldier who is concerned his love may not want him to return home. If she is still interested, she is to tie a yellow ribbon around “an ole oak tree.” Later in life, Levine became livid when people suggested the song was about an ex-convict returning from prison. “The genesis of this idea came from the age old folk tale about a Union prisoner of war–who sent a letter to his girl that he was coming home from a confederate POW camp in Georgia…. Anything about a criminal is pure fantasy….” Women in the 19th century are said to have worn a yellow ribbon in their hair to remember their men serving in the Union Army.
Neil Diamond’s “America” was a single from the soundtrack to the Movie, The Jazz Singer. Diamond wrote the song to honor the legacy of immigrants who come to America for a better life. “Every time that flag’s unfurled / They’re coming to America,” he sings before finally exhorting people to sing “My Country TIs of Thee” at the song’s end. The aspirational song became a huge hit. It was used as the theme song for Michael Dukakis’ doomed 1984 presidential campaign. (Apparently voters preferred the uncomplicated patriotism of Greenwood version of America). Despite the overwhelmingly positive message of “America,” it was on a list of songs banned by Clear Channel after 9/11. The infamous memo identified 165 suggested songs and artists which were prohibited from being played. Diamond joined Rage Against the Machine (whose entire oeuvre was banned), Guns N Roses, AC/DC, Foo Fighters, and others whose lyrics were deemed inappropriate by the radio giant.
A most curious thing happened in America over the last 30 years: a Tchaikovsky classical tune that was composed to commemorate Russia’ victory over the Napoleon in 1812 has become part of nearly every public celebration of American Independence. Tchaikovsky wrote the song in just six weeks, and it was intended to commemorate a number of important Russian events, including the 25th anniversary of Emperor Alexander II’s coronation, and the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition of 1882.
How did the patriotic Russian song become so beloved in America? It happened after an incredible performance of the song by the Boston Pops in 1974. The Pops, conducted by Arthur Fiedler, planned a spectacular July 4 performance including live cannon fire and a steeple bell choir. (Fiedler’s version matched Tchaikovsky’s original vision of live cannon fire, which is written into the score.) After the performance became a hit, orchestras all over America started to perform the song for Independence Day. The song is so ubiquitous that some Americans even believe the song is based on the Revolutionary War, despite the fact that its title is literally the “1812 Overture.”