5 great non-corny songs about America
I love my country, but I hate corny music. That's one thing that makes it challenging to find good songs to play on the Fourth of July.
Here's another: My love for my country is a complicated love — like the love for a parent who sometimes acts stupidly or irresponsibly. The love is always there, because the parent is my parent, and love for one's own isn't contingent on the object of affection being worthy of love. But the love can be mixed with disappointment and even anger when the parent's behavior falls short of standards both of us claim to revere.
Above all, I don't want my patriotism to focus so exclusively on the good that I lose sight of the true — which sometimes includes the bad and the ugly.
That's a tall order. But here are five (really six) songs that fit the bill. Consider it a soundtrack for an Independence Day party of sophisticated patriots.
1. Simon and Garfunkel, "America" (1968) / Paul Simon, "American Tune" (1973)
With these two songs, Paul Simon knocked it out of the park. The lovers Greyhounding the country in "America" aren't love-it-or-leave-it jingoists. But neither are they hippie do-gooders denouncing the nation and its crimes. They're wanderers wondering just what's driving their oh-so-American restlessness — "lost," "empty," and "aching" without knowing precisely why, though taking comfort in the company of the "cars on the New Jersey Turnpike" filled with people who've "all come to look for America." From the first settlers arriving in the New World on down through the Western migration to the distinctive, technologically facilitated restlessness of our own time, America has been and probably always will be a place of anxious movement and flight. And "America" captures it beautifully.
"American Tune" explores the same theme, but on a much broader canvas. Instead of looking at the country through the lens of one nameless kid playing games with Kathy on a bus, Simon now paints a sweeping historical panorama that stretches from the Mayflower to the moon shot, all as a way of making sense of the rapidly rising tide of disillusionment that swept the country in the early-to-mid-1970s. Looking out at America on the verge of losing the Vietnam War and increasingly consumed with political scandal and corruption, Simon sees battered souls, shattered dreams, and friends ill-at-ease, and he wants to know "what's gone wrong." And the answer is: reality. "You can't be forever blessed." That's a hard truth for anyone, but perhaps especially for Americans, raised to believe we are (in Lincoln's famous words) an almost chosen nation.
2. Bruce Springsteen, "This Land is Your Land" (1985)
Woody Guthrie wrote a boatload of thoughtful, searching songs about America's peculiar greatness and distinctive faults. Bruce Springsteen specializes in rousing anthems fueled with a high octane blend of joyful idealism and furious despair. The Boss' cover of Guthrie's classic "This Land Is Your Land" — recorded in 1980 and included on Springsteen's five-disk collection Live / 1975-85 — melds the best of both. It's a luminous performance of a song that Springsteen describes in his opening remarks as "just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written." He also notes that it's an angry song that was written as a response and rebuttal to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Listen and be knocked down by its soaring melody and populist vision of what the country can and should be.
3. Wilco, "Ashes of American Flags" (2002)
If Reprise Records had released Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on schedule, it probably would have come out before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Instead the label balked at the album's experiments with song forms and arrangements, and by the time it was brought out by Nonesuch in April 2002, the country had turned a cultural and political corner. It's hard to know how a song like "Ashes of American Flags" would have sounded in the summer of 2001. Like several tracks on the album, its meaning is elusive. (Jeff Tweedy sings about cash machines and Diet Coke, breaking his tongue and shaking "like a toothache / Every time I hear myself sing.") But the central image of saluting incinerated American flags — especially when wedded to music that sounds like a stop-start, deconstructed dirge — is powerful, haunting, unforgettable.
4. Ray Charles, "America the Beautiful" (1972)
Ray Charles' September 1972 performance of "America the Beautiful" on The Dick Cavett Show oozes passion, longing, love, and regret. That could describe nearly any Charles performance of nearly any song from his mid-20th-century heyday. But wedded to this familiar tune with its affirming American message, Charles' signature soulfulness is transformed into something greater — something timeless, like an alternative national anthem containing all the nation's sorrows within itself, raising them up, and redeeming them. That Charles chose to begin his version with the lesser-known third verse of the song (which includes a prayer for God to "refine" the country's gold and turn its success "into nobleness") only enhances its impact.
5. David Bowie, "I'm Afraid of Americans" (1997)
America is revered by many. Millions risk their lives every year for the opportunity to live here. But our military and economic might also scares a lot of people. David Bowie's insidiously catchy techno-industrial tribute to all the fearful people hits the listener like live wire. All we know is that "Johnny's in America," he wants a Coke, and a woman, and that he (or his spokesman — the song switches to the first-person, and triples in volume, for the chorus) has something to confess: "I'm afraid of Americans / I'm afraid of the world / I'm afraid I can't help it." Oh, and we also learn later on that "God is an American." As Bowie himself has described the track, it's a brilliantly "sardonic" song that winks knowingly at the absurdity of its core (and very common) indictment of the United States. Sure, we're powerful, but that's in large part because you love Coke! And anyway, you're the one who's scared. That's not our problem.