In honor of Independence Day approaching, here are some songs about America, along with some history and context.
“The Star-Spangled Banner”
Francis Scott Key wrote a poem, “Defence of Fort McHenry” during the War of 1812, as British ships in Chesapeake Bay bombarded the fort. Key, a lawyer, had gone to secure the release of an American civilian prisoner and was on a British truce ship during the battle. He had the melody “To Anacreon in Heaven” in mind when he wrote his poem of being inspired by the fort’s lack of surrender. Also known as “The Anacreontic Song,” the tune and its original lyrics belonged to a gentleman’s club in London. Anacreon was a Greek poet known for his drinking songs and hymns, and the original words are included in this performance link. Using the club’s tune and the poem’s words, the song’s popularity spread and it became the nation’s official tune in 1931. Read more about “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the Smithsonian website. Here’s Jennifer Hudson singing the National Anthem:
Here’s the full version, with lyrics:
“Battle of New Orleans”
Johnny Horton’s song of the last major battle of the War of 1812 is more lighthearted. In 1814, Gen. Andrew Jackson (later president) had several encounters with the British and, toward the end of the year, he and a collection of inexperienced volunteers, free blacks, riflemen from Tennessee and Kentucky, Louisiana militia and pirates were vastly outnumbered by the British in New Orleans. However, the Americans had built a long, earthen barrier. The British rushed the barrier and faced overwhelming fire from rifles and canons.
“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”
In 1831, Samuel Francis Smith wrote the words to another American song that took over a British tune, in this case, “God Save the Queen,” the British National Anthem (with lyrics here). Smith, who later went on to be a minister and writer, penned the words as a seminary student. Here’s Crosby, Stills & Nash singing it:
“America the Beautiful”
English literature professor Katharine Lee Bates wrote the poem after a trip to Pikes Peak, in Colorado, and it was published in 1895 in a weekly journal. The poem was sung to a variety of lyrics, and revised a few times, but the modern version is to the tune “Materna” by Samuel A. Ward, composed in 1882. Here’s a beautiful version by Ray Charles.
“God Bless America” and “This Land is Your Land”
Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” after being irritated by the often-played “God Bless America,” written by Irving Berlin and sung by Kate Smith. Berlin , an immigrant at the age of 5, created the God Bless America Fund to handle donation of the song’s royalties. Both songs are below:
“God Bless the USA”
Written on a tour bus in 1983 by Lee Greenwood, the song was an expression of his passion to see more unity in the country.
Neil Diamond’s patriotic song about immigrants was among the songs Clear Channel Communications asked its stations to not play after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
John Mellencamp’s song was used by Republican John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 until Mellencamp objected.
What are your favorite songs about America?