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Six Patriotic Songs for Labor Day Weekend

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AMERICAN FLAG
Shutterstock / Brandon Bourdages

This year the USA celebrates the 200th anniversary of The Star-Spangled Banner.  Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics, inspired by the battle at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, and it officially became the National Anthem in 1931.  Notoriously difficult to sing (my favorite rendition is Whitney Houston's, complete with combat jets at the end), it's a song of resolve and resilience suffused with images of battle, which only makes sense given the conditions under which it was composed.

Along with the National Anthem, the other patriotic song most commonly sung at sporting events and official gatherings is God Bless America.  Penned by Irving Berlin in 1918 and made famous by Kate Smith's renditions, it's usually performed today without its placatory preamble ("While the storm clouds gather far across the sea/Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free/Let us all be grateful for a land so fair/As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer").  Most performances that I hear today are neither solemn nor placatory; they're boastful in the sense of suggesting that God uniquely blesses America, that of course God blesses America.  We're so great -- how could He not?  Here I recall the saying of Abraham Lincoln that we must not presume God is on our side, but rather we must be concerned we are on His side.

A third and unofficial anthem for many Americans today is Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA, with its refrain "And I'm proud to be an American," the popularity of which is consistent with the strongly affirmational qualities of the National Anthem and God Bless America.

What I miss today are three other patriotic songs from my youth: America the Beautiful, My Country, 'Tis of Thee, and This Land Is Your Land.  Of course, these songs are still performed, but at least in my experience they are far less common than the preceding three.

Why is this?  I think it's because these three songs are less bellicose, less boastful, and more insistent that the defining qualities of America are national beauty and brotherhood, liberty and freedom, and equality of access for all, rather than of bellicosity and boastfulness about being uniquely blessed and favored by God.

The most contrarian is Woody Guthrie's "This Land."  Most people have never heard the stanzas that Guthrie included in the original version that highlight inequality and suffering in the USA.  Yet even without those, Guthrie's song stayed with me as a youth because it stressed that the land was made for you as well as me: that we share the land together as a form of commonwealth.

Here are the original stanzas to Guthrie's song as he composed them in 1940:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me that endless skyway,
And saw below me the golden valley, I said:
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn't say nothing --
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
This land was made for you and me.

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
This land was made for you and me.

Recalling that my father and his family went hungry during the Great Depression, and remembering my father's saying that the rich have no use or sympathy for the poor, I think he would have appreciated the honesty and integrity of Guthrie's song.

On this Labor Day weekend, patriotic songs will be in vogue.  But let's not sing just the first three above; let's sing the final three, including Woody Guthrie's.  Let's stress, and stress again, the importance of national beauty and brotherhood, liberty and freedom, and equality of access for all.

A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, William Astore edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.