Monday, July 1, 2013

Patriotic songs

It may be iconic, but the U.S. Flag gets a C+ rating on this rating system. Photo from Flickr.
What makes music patriotic? Two things: lyrics and tradition.

What about lyrics (or the words of a song) makes something patriotic? Usually, mention of place, coupled with a sense of nostalgia or importance. Often, just repeating the place name is enough, as long as the mention is a positive one. Music is a great way to imbue or communicate these positive feelings into an idea, granting the word pomp, especially in the right circumstance.

As for tradition, repetition, especially at symbolic occasions, can lead to song symbolism very quickly. Think of the national anthem sung and played at important civic and sporting events, usually accompanied by raising a flag.

Can you have patriotic music without words? This is much harder, but it is certainly possible. Even a simple patriotic title can go a long ways. In this case, repetition resulting in
tradition is really the only recourse. Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture, despite its European story, has become to be associated with patriotism almost because of sheer repetition. It does, however, have some words associated with it, if only a title and a scenario. Perhaps cannons help, too, especially since our independence day traditions are so bombastic.

"What about the music?" You might ask, especially if you are a regular reader of this blog. Well, I'm not sure the music makes much of a difference to whether a song is perceived patriotic, other than that the right music can twist and make fun of a known patriotic lyric. I'm not about to define what makes music convey genuineness or gravity. Certainly, there is a certain style (on a European model) that most countries in the world favor for their national anthems, but patriotic music is not limited to this style.


Here in the United States of America, our most prominent patriotic song is  "The Star-Spangled Banner." Perhaps one downside to its symbolic success and ubiquity is that many Americans don't even listen to the words anymore. In fact, surprisingly, the majority of Americans don't know the words or even what the song is about. In 2007, to combat this dearth of knowledge, the largest national educator's organization, MENC, put together a national anthem roadshow to help, which received a lot of attention.

Some educator factions would like to change the national anthem to "America the Beautiful," because "The Star-Spangled Banner" is actually really hard to sing. Although its difficulty makes it great for divas to sing at sporting events. If you want to know more about the national anthem, especially Jimi Hendrix's fascination with it, you should definitely check out Mark Clague's forthcoming book "O Say Can You Hear: A Music History of America's Anthem."

Do you have a favorite patriotic song? Can you think of examples of patriotic songs without words? What do you think makes music convey
genuineness or gravity?

Vocab: lyrics, anthem, diva


  1. "Stars and Stripes Forever" and a lot of marches don't have words, but the titles themselves and the military settings convey the patriotic feeling

    1. I thought the words to the "Stars and Stripes Forever" were "Be kind to your web-footed friends, 'cause a duck may be somebody's mother"?