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It may have been a while since you listened to an American patriotic song. Maybe around a holiday, like the Fourth of July or Memorial Day.
Recently we wrote about our national anthem. That reminded us to take a look (and listen) back at some songs that weren’t that, but almost that sort of thing.
These were maybe not so grandly written or had such majestic music or maybe were just one tier down in popularity and significance.
However, we found that they are treasures in themselves.
We were surprised, once we looked into it, to realize there was a number worthy of our look back and listening to again.
For this post, it actually turned out to be a little difficult to pick out just a few to reminisce and write about.
Here are our picks for what we felt to be the best patriotic songs about our country. Not just ours, but after looking around, what we felt to be among the favorites our fellow Americans choose.
What are the favorite American patriotic songs?
There are any number of ways to answer this! We decided to cross genres and talk about the classics that came up again and again in lists and stories of the best-loved.
Here’s our list:
- Yankee Doodle
- Columbia, Gem Of The Ocean
- This Land Is Your Land
- Ragged Old Flag
- God Bless the USA
Once having decided on which we would write about, we wanted to look into what significance they had in our nation’s history. Or maybe they were just pretty, beautiful things. In other words, is there something about them that they are remembered and cared about all these years? It was fun and interesting to find out.
You probably know some of these, but do you recall all of them? Are they your favorites, too?
Of all the ones we could talk about, this one is probably the most fun. And it is also the oldest.
It dates to at least prior to the American Revolution! That was before 1775, folks. It seems to have its origins several centuries before that, with a variety of versions in European countries.
The form it took in the mid-1700s among the British, which is what we now draw upon, was a bit silly. “Doodle” meant a fool, a “dandy” was a man who dressed in an exaggerated affected style, and “macaroni” was an extreme wig style. Obviously, this all had negative connotations and played fun at certain people.
It is said it got applied to “Yankees”, deriding the colonists who seemed disorganized and ill-dressed to the better-equipped military from the home land across the Atlantic Ocean.
However, those (foolish?) colonials took the early lyrics and changed them to their liking. Over a short number of years, the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” tunes became a source of pride to the fledgling Colonialists.
Heard a different version of this old story? That’s okay. There appear to be several variations floating about. Something like that happened, anyway!
Yankee Doodle lyrics
The actual song can get quite long, with many verses and changes. Here is the beginning and chorus, which is undoubtedly quite familiar to you.
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.
Yankee Doodle Dandy: the movie
I bet you are a little confused right now. Because when you first read our words, “Yankee Doodle” you probably had forgotten about the early song, as we just had some fun going over.
We bet, that instead of that you immediately thought of the movie! Yep, there was a very prominent and well-liked motion picture made in 1942 with that name on it. It was a memorable fictionalized biography of George M. Cohan. James Cagney, who was wonderful in the role, starred.
Cohan was a prolific and consummate entertainer and composer. He said he was born on the Fourth of July. He started as a child and played vaudeville in his Irish American family’s act. Eventually, he was feted as the “Father Of Musical Comedy” and “Man Who Owned Broadway”.
It is full of patriotic and famous tunes from Cohan’s repertoire. (You, of course, know “Give My Regards To Broadway”.) The movie has a wonderful tap dance down a stairway… It won the Academy Awards for Best Actor, Music, and other achievements…
Wait, we are talking about old hymns of patriotism, not Americana cinema! Oh, ok, easy to get back on subject …
I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy
Also called “Yankee Doodle Boy”. Cagney sings and tap dances everywhere on the stage. Talk about high energy!
Watch this terrific treat:
You’re A Grand Old Flag
This is among the songs in the movie that were reprisals of earlier Cohan works. It is a march that he wrote in 1906 that celebrates the American flag.
The story is that Cohan met a Civil War veteran who was holding an old tattered “rag” (flag) that was the inspiration. The bit was incorporated into his musical “George Washington, Jr.” that opened on stage that year.
We don’t remember when it wasn’t a hit with everybody.
This is such a neat song, that we think you should listen to the whole thing, as done by Cagney. Some verses reference other pieces of music, too. (It does not include moving images from the motion picture itself, only a flag title.)
Here is the chorus:
You’re a grand old flag,George M. Cohan
You’re a high-flying flag,
And forever in peace may you wave.
You’re the emblem of the land I love,
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev’ry heart beats true
‘Neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there’s never a boast or brag.
But should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.
Today, you’ll find many homemade or local videos of this selection by schools and kids. It’s especially a favorite at holidays, like Veteran’s Day.
Note: George M! is a 1968 Broadway musical that also celebrated Cohan’s life and music. These same tunes appeared in it. We’ve chosen to go with the 1942 versions, however, just because we like ’em.
Columbia, Gem Of The Ocean (The Red, White, And Blue)
This old and well-respected song has an interesting, if somewhat confusing, history.
David T. Shaw, a Philadelphian musician, is credited with having composed it in 1843. It may have actually been written or revised by his contact, Thomas a’Beckett, who hailed from England originally and did the arrangement. So you may see either name when you look up this composition.
The melody is the same as “Britannia, the Pride of the Ocean”. Unclear which came first! The words are quite similar. An argument in favor of the British version being first is that the phrase “gem of the ocean” would be more likely to apply to that country, versus ours.
On the other hand, there appears to be other circumstantial evidence that it was written first in the U.S.
Where does the name “Columbia” come from?
Columbia has been termed a ‘poetic feminization’ for the United States, used especially early in its history when it consisted of the first colonies.
The characterization was widespread in Britain and Europe in those days.
Obviously, it is derived from Christopher Columbus.
The song became very popular. It’s unclear how the interest in it grew. However, it had widespread distribution during the Civil War and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
In fact, it served as an unofficial national anthem. This enjoyment and preference for it persisted, really, until the Star Spangled Banner was officially installed as America’s anthem in 1931.
Lyrics of Columbia, Gem Of The Ocean – first stanza
O Columbia! the gem of the ocean,David T. Shaw
The home of the brave and the free,
The shrine of each patriot’s devotion,
A world offers homage to thee;
Thy mandates make heroes assemble,
When Liberty’s form stands in view;
Thy banners make tyranny tremble,
When borne by the red, white, and blue.
Since then, we find it still admired and sung, but it clearly has faded from view compared with its prominence in the previous century.
In 1957, a very popular play, the Music Man featured it, as did the academy-award winning movie of the same name in 1962.
It continues to be a standard of the U.S. Marine Corps Band.
And you will learn of the occasional individual who hears it, either for the first time or after many times, sigh and remark “Why is this not our national anthem?“.
This Land Is Your Land
This outstanding folk song apparently was Woody Guthrie’s reaction to “God Bless America”. As you recall, the latter was famously sung by Kate Smith in 1938 and achieved immense popularity. It was being played endlessly on the radio.
He wrote it in 1940, didn’t use it further at the time, and revised it four years later. The folk music of the Carter Family, so prominent during the first half of the century, influenced his choice in melody.
This Land Is Your Land lyrics – first stanza
This land is your land, this land is my landWoody Guthrie
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
There has been some variation in the published text in different sources. Some include more politically active lines such as alluding to people in relief lines and “no trespassing” signs. In other versions, controversial lines were marked out.
The remarkable Guthrie, who was born in Oklahoma, throughout his career sang for social justice. This song clearly was part of his effort. He wanted to raise up those who suffered due to being poor. The Great Depression was not that long before and part of active memory. He had traveled as a migrant in the Dust Bowl through the middle of the country in the 1930s.
It did become a favorite of political activists of the 1960s. Many sang it, including Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Later cultural activist songsters, notably Bruce Springsteen in the early 1980s, continued with it.
“It’s just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written.”
– Bruce Springsteen
But it was not a clearcut protest song in that it became accepted into the wider culture of the country and was never marginalized. It did not belong only to the political Left.
There are numerous versions of it by now and it has spread to other countries. In these new locations, additional changes in wording respective of the current trends have become commonplace.
Ragged Old Flag
The words are good, but it is Johnny Cash’s stellar bass-baritone that makes this piece riveting. After a while, you realize it is spoken word, not sung! Doesn’t matter.
It tells a story in poetry.
“And she’s getting threadbare, and she’s wearing thin, but she’s in good shape, for the shape she’s in.Johnny Cash
‘Cause she’s been through the fire before and I believe she can take a whole lot more.”
He wrote it in 1974, shortly after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. Undoubtedly it appears to reflect the national angst that many felt at that time in history. But it is not a negative song, at all.
The sound is not as sterling as some pre-recorded. But I like this live event for seeing the realness of the performance. Every time he presented it, he got rave reviews.
Written and performed by Johnny Cash, the album The Essential Johnny Cash, also has other patriotic songs on it.
This gorgeous poem set to music is pretty grand, we think. But it is just part of his numerous musical outputs and collaborations. We know you know “I Walk The Line” (1956), “Ring Of Fire” (1963), and “Folsom Prison Blues” (1968) as a minimum.
They say Johnny Cash was a country music star and I hear it in his voice, born in Arkansas. But through his multifaceted career, he spread out into other genres, including rock and roll too. Of course, he did gospel.
A rare achievement for anyone was his induction into all three music Halls of Fames: Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Music.
Unfortunately, much of his adult life was marred by drug addiction. His musical and performance credentials carried on through these difficulties anyway. He, too, had lived through the Great Depression and mourned the difficulties of forgotten and disregarded people. He advocated especially for Native Americans and for prison reform.
God Bless The USA
It became a major song for the country balladeer, Lee Greenwood, who wrote it in 1983. It is on his American Patriot album, containing the national anthem and other major efforts.
It did win the Song of the Year award from the Country Music Association. But the song did not have gigantic popularity during the first years after it came out. It seems to have grown on the country steadily since then.
Lyrics of God Bless The USA – refrain
And I’m proud to be an AmericanLee Greenwood
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I’d gladly stand up next to you
And defend Her still today
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt
I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.
It’s like when there is something big that happens, unfortunately in an adverse way, — the Gulf War, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 — the song gets remembered and sung anew. In hard times, it is definitely an inspiration and point of renewal.
An online poll identified it, on the song’s 20th anniversary, as the “most recognizable patriotic song in the U.S.”
His discography is largely identified as country but crosses genres into adult contemporary and pop. You may know “Dixie Road” and “Inside Out”, among other hits.
Greenwood was a native to California and was mainly raised by grandparents. Very cool: he wrote a children’s book, Proud To Be An American, that rests on the lyrics of this song. It features grandparents in the usual parental roles, because of his own childhood reflection.
These are trivial!
Q & A
Which parody of a patriotic song was engaged by “dueling” U.S. Presidential candidates?
George W. Bush (future President of the United States) and his rival John Kerry “dueted” in 2004 to a pretty humorous “This Land” put together by JibJab.
Why is Sousa’s wonderful “The Stars and Stripes Forever” not on this list?
Because it is a march, not a song!
Stars And Stripes Forever, composed by John Philip Sousa (1896), is the official national march of the U.S.A.
We decided to give you this version. Although the sound, of course, is a little impaired given the live nature of the recording, it still came out pretty well! Nothin’ better than a real band giving a real, and really good, accounting of themselves.
Before you go
Thank you kindly for visiting with us. We hope you are going away singing!
We have other patriotic music articles that you may like. For example, the national anthem and wannabees. And the great and greatest performers of the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Also, John Philip Sousa’s stirring patriotic marches. Please see them, if you have time.
Did you enjoy reading about Yankee Doodle? That dates from our colonial days. There is more to read about Colonial America in another post we have. Thanks.
The early sounds we talk about more are in another post: American roots.
P.S. We had fun writing about what some may consider being “anti-patriotic” music, that is “protest” songs. In fact, as we learned about them, we found out they (at least many of them!) are actually really patriotic, not the reverse. See what you think.