American patriotic music is a part of the culture and history of the United States since its founding in the 18th century and serves to encourage feelings of honor for the country’s forefathers and for national unity. One of the earliest references to patriotic music appears in a 1768 newspaper that reported, “…when the British warships arrived in Boston, the ‘Yankee Doodle’ song was the capital piece in their band of music” being as Yankee referred to a New Englander and a “doodle” meant a simpleton or fool. (It wasn’t until 1872 that, in a bit of fun, the verse containing the rhyme ‘pony’ and ‘macaroni’ was added.) Although often inspired by times of national crisis, sometimes patriotic songs are often less born of the moment than made and remade as circumstances and trends change. During the month of July, as we celebrate our nation’s birth, let’s take a look at some of our country’s best known patriotic tunes and what inspired them to be written.
1. The Liberty Song (1768) was inspired by the American colonists’ resistance to the British Stamp Act. The words, by John Dickinson, a colonial statesman, were set to an old English tune. Setting new words to old musical pieces was common and such tunes were referred to as broadside ballads.
2. The words to The Star-Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, was originally titled “The Defense of Fort McHenry” and was set to the melody of an old 1770 English tune created for an amateur musical club. Often words to many wonderful American patriotic songs were set to melodies that were old English pub songs.
3. Hail Columbia (1798) was originally written to the tune of “The President’s March”, a song originally written for George Washington’s inauguration and used as the United States’ National Anthem until 1931 when President Herbert Hoover signed a bill naming “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the United States’ National Anthem.
4. America was written in 1831 by a young clergyman named Samuel Francis Smith in just one sitting. Thinking he was setting his words to an old German tune, imagine his surprise when he realized that the melody he used originated in Britain and was, in fact, the melody of “God Save the Queen”! Because of the references to God in the lyrics, America is considered by many to be a hymn.
5. Hail to the Chief, most often played to announce the arrival or presence of the President of the United States, was written as stanzas in a poem by Sir Walter Scott and was meant to honor a favorite chief of the highlanders of Scotland.
6. The poem, Battle Hymn of the Republic (1861), by Julia Ward Howe was written to a tune called “Glory Hallelujah” that she had heard played at a flag-raising ceremony in Boston after the attack on Fort Sumter.
7. Katharine Lee Bates wrote America the Beautiful in 1893 after being inspired by the view from Pikes Peak in Colorado. She intended for her words to be put to a tune called “Materna”; however, it wasn’t until 1910 after the death of the composer of the tune that she was able to set the poem to the melody.
8. George M. Cohan’s Over There was the most famous patriotic song from World War I.
9. God Bless America by Irving Berlin was originally written as a finale song for a soldier’s show. Berlin, however, didn’t use it as he felt the song was inappropriate for the show after all. It wasn’t published until 1938 when Kate Smith asked Irving Berlin to let her introduce the song on the radio on Veterans Day.
10. Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition was written by Frank Loesser and was the best known patriotic song of World War II.
11. 9/11 gave us Alan Jackson’s Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning), a modern patriotic ballad.
12. God Bless America and Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. are the most often played patriotic songs in the United States today.
By Diana Blidy