Four songs that sound patriotic, but really aren’t

Published on July 1st, 2013 | by Joe Lawler

Independence Day is this week, which is a great time to assemble patriotic song playlists. But you might want to put some thought into what you’re picking. Not every song that sounds patriotic is. Or at least not patriotic in the way it sounds on the surface.

“Independence Day” (1994) – Martina McBride. Sean Hannity this as the theme song for his talk radio show, which is pretty good patriotic credentials, right? I mean check out the chorus:

“Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing
Let the whole world know that today
Is a day of reckoning.
Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong
Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay
It’s Independence Day.”

You’re envisioning a flag waving right now, aren’t you? But let’s look at some more of the lyrics.

“Well she seemed all right by dawn’s early light
Though she looked a little worried and weak.
She tried to pretend he wasn’t drinkin’ again
But daddy’d left the proof on her cheek.”

That’s right, the song is about domestic abuse and finally escaping it. So in the end there is an uplifting message, but a little different than the one the chorus might leave you with. And then there’s the music video:

“This Land is Your Land” (1945) – Woody Guthrie. Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” is a very patriotic song. Woody Guthrie wasn’t so crazy about  the ideas expressed in it, so he wrote “This Land is Your Land” in response.

Again, the chorus paints a pretty positive image:

“This land is your land, this land is my land

From California, to the New York Island

From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters

This land was made for you and me”

And the version of “This Land” that was published in 1944 seems fairly innocuous, but Guthrie’s original 1940 version?

“Was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said: Private property

But on the back side  didn’t say nothing’

God blessed America for me.”

The song went through a number of changed over the years, including its famous title, which started as “God Blessed America for Me.” In another version of those lyrics, the sign” verse ended with “Now that side was made for you and me.” Guthrie was making a point about ownership, one falling in line with his communist views.

Another excised verse?

“One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple

By the Relief Office, I saw my people –

As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if

God blessed America for me.”

Hungry people waiting in line for food, questioning if God really blessed America. It really did work well as a retort to “God Bless America.”

“Pink Houses”(1983) –  John Mellencamp

If the song title doesn’t get the tune in your head, maybe this will help:

“Oh but ain’t that America for you and me
Ain’t that America somethin’ to see baby
Ain’t that America home of the free
Little pink houses for you and me”

Mostly the song is about working class people with dreams that got away from them. Then there’s the last verse:

“Well there’s people and more people
What do they know know know
Go to work in some high rise
And vacation down at the Gulf of Mexico
Ooh yeah
And there’s winners and there’s losers
But they ain’t no big deal
‘Cause the simple man baby pays for the thrills, the bills,
The pills that kill.”

In 2008 both John Edwards and John McCain were using the song as part of their presidential campaigns. Mellencamp questioned McCain’s use of the song, and the campaign stopped using Mellencamp songs altogether, but if you check out the lyrics it’s hard to see why either side would want to use it. In 2010 the National Organization for Marriage used the song at events opposing same-sex marriage. Mellencamp wasn’t so happy with that use either.

 “Born in the USA” (1984) – Bruce Springsteen. This album’s cover has the iconic image of Bruce Springsteen (‘s butt) in front of the American flag. The chorus is simple, but unforgettable and rousing:

“Burn in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.

I was born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.”

But the lyric right before that?

“Born down in a dead man town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up”

From there the song covers the Vietnam war, a desolate countryside and a lost vet with “nowhere to run” and “nowhere to go.” The song played a part in the 1984 political campaign, with both the Reagan and Mondale campaigns pointing to the song and Springsteen as representing everything their side stood for, and neither being correct. Here’s what Springsteen said about the song:

“‘Born in the U.S.A.’ is about “a working-class man” [in the midst of a] “spiritual crisis, in which man is left lost…It’s like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He’s isolated from the government. Isolated from his family…to the point where nothing makes sense.”

But it still sounds great at baseball games.

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About the Author

Joe Lawler covers music and more for Juice Magazine. E-mail him at or follow his updates on Twitter @JoeLawler

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