A look at some of the best music about America

July 6, 2014 

Independence Day has passed, but it's still the Fourth of July weekend. You may still be feeling the effects of eating too many hot dogs or drinking too much beer on Friday, and your dog may not have recovered from being freaked out by the fireworks.

So before we all go back to work tomorrow, let's keep the spirit of this holiday weekend alive by considering a few of the greatest musical compositions about America.

For this little exercise, we'll forgo the familiar, overtly patriotic songs, just because we all know them and we've heard them all weekend. We'll also include some protest songs, because there's nothing that celebrates the spirit of America more than strumming a guitar and singing about social injustice.

"American Tune" by Paul Simon: This complex lyric (set to a melody borrowed from Bach) both bemoans and exalts America, contrasting the difficulties of getting through daily life with the ideal of liberty and the spirit of adventure. It feels as immediate today as it did 41 years ago.

"Rodeo" by Aaron Copland: Lots of Copland's work fills the listener with an ethereal sense of what it means to be an American, but this ballad, with its unabashed references to the folk songs that reside in our national subconscious, does it better than the others.

"This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie: Maybe an obvious choice, but for some silly reason this song has sparked occasional controversy from people who see its philosophy as communistic. Those people have apparently never paid attention to the glorious lyrics in any thoughtful way.

"America" by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein: One of the most fun songs from "West Side Story" is essentially an argument about the pros and cons of America. Sondheim envisioned it as a debate between Anita and Bernardo, which is how it's sung in the film. He changed it for the stage version because Jerome Robbins wanted a dance number with all girls, and the song just isn't as effective.

"Political Science" by Randy Newman: A terrific, light-hearted poke

at America's tradition of self-centric belligerence. Maybe more salient in the '70s than now, but we've all encountered people whose attitude is reflected in the line "They all hate us anyhow, so let's drop the big one now."

"Living in America" by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight: One of James Brown's biggest and best is a paean to the American dream that oozes triumph and celebration in every note and in every ironic turn of phrase, and that's remarkable for its complete lack of irony. "When there's no destination that's too far," Brown sings, "Somewhere on the way, you might find out who you are," and then: "You may not be looking for the promised land, but you might find it anyway."

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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