The music we think of when we think of the Fourth of July is the overtly, and even overly, patriotic stuff. There are some terrific songs -- the music and the lyrics of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" can fill you with pride if you listen to it with a fresh ear -- but many have lost their impact and even their meaning through repetition.
There are some wonderful pieces of music that celebrate America in perhaps more complex and subtle ways. They're about what we are and what we stand for, about why our country is great and even how we can get better. In their own way, they're every bit as patriotic as "God Bless America." Here are a few.
"This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie: People have suggested making this the national anthem. Other people have called it an ode to communism. Both ideas are silly. The song's a proud declaration of a man who feels himself a part of a great country.
"American Tune" by Paul Simon: He copped the melody from Bach but it fits beautifully with his lyrics about America's success and failure in living up to its ideal. A celebration and a lament at the same time.
"Rodeo" by Aaron Copland: No one thought American music could be classical music before Copland. His use of folk melodies in a symphonic piece celebrated the Wild West and proved that American music was art.
"America" from "West Side Story": Tongue-in-cheek, obviously, and maybe even bordering on sarcastic, but still a fun and at least partly sincere vision of an immigrant's love for the country.
"We Take Care of Our Own" by Bruce Springsteen: Yes, it's part protest song, but it's more patriotic than "Born in the USA," which has been used inappropriately for decades. "We Take Care of Our Own" laments that Americans have gotten more selfish, but it also asserts that taking care of our countrymen is one of the things that defines us.
"America the Beautiful" by Ray Charles: Yes, it's one of those songs that we've heard so often we don't listen to it, but that's the point. Ray Charles took a song that we all started singing as schoolchildren
and makes us understand its power and its meaning, its majestic praise of our country.
"Democracy" by Leonard Cohen: A stunning song. Its refrain, "Democracy is coming to the USA," is only partially ironic. Essentially Canadian Cohen is offering a solemn and hopeful ode to contemporary America. It's "the cradle of the best and the worst," he sings. "I love the country but I can't stand the scene." But when he sings the last lines: "I'm holding up this wild bouquet: Democracy is coming to the USA," you know the song is meant as a love letter, or at least a "get well soon" card.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.