I’ll admit to feeling some ambivalence about the Fourth of July. I don’t mean the cookouts, the hanging out with friends and family, the general summer bacchanal aspects. I mean the stuff that lurks underneath all of that. The Declaration of Independence. The way that Thomas Jefferson rather brilliantly and succinctly summarized the thoughts of English philosopher John Locke, regarding life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And the way all of that simultaneously midwifed the birth of this country, and left wide open the door to infinite interpretations of what “revolution” might mean.
Sometimes, if you listen closely, you can hear the country groan. It’s weary, but unwilling to admit it. It wants the tumult to cease. It defines “progress” as our ability to get along with each other, to acknowledge and accept differences, for the greater good. And it’s afraid we’re not quite getting it right.
As ever, America is not so much divided as endlessly subdivided.
Thinking about all of this, I’m scared, frankly. It makes it difficult to enjoy my Fourth of July barbecue with a clean conscience. Aren’t we glossing over a few things here, people? Or am I just overthinking this?
Whenever I wander into such a fugue state regarding this wonderful but flawed country, I tend to rely on music to show me the way out of the maze. Some of our greatest American philosophers have been songwriters, after all. The benefits of working in the area of poetic abstraction, as opposed to political doctrine, are many. One of the most obvious is the ability of abstract poetics to hint at the heart of things without having to be overtly explicit about it. I like this. It feels far less dangerous. Whatever your personal, political or spiritual beliefs may be, the odds are high that you have bonded over music with someone whose beliefs are entirely different than your own. That’s one of the many gifts that music gives us.
How one chooses to express their love for their country is one’s own business, but one thing is certain: True love admits complexities. It doesn’t merely attempt to brush those complexities beneath a star-spangled carpet. So it stands to reason that some of the greatest songs written about and for America are also the most complex.
That said, while attempting to craft my Fourth of July play list this year – duly aware that I don’t really want to be a buzz-killer – I decided to straddle the fence. Some songs would deal with the complexities inherent to living in this country. Others would simply be party anthems. One might even explicitly mention hot dogs and hamburgers.
As the great American poet Bob Dylan once said, “It’s all good.”
1) “I Am A Patriot,” by Little Steven
“I am a patriot, and I love my country/because my country is all I know/I wanna be with my family/and people who understand me/and I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
Yeah. Tough love.
2) “4th of July,” by Soundgarden
It can’t be rainbows and puppies all the time.
3) “U.S. Blues,” by the Grateful Dead
“Wave that flag! Wave it wide and high!”
4) “Long Walk Home,” by Bruce Springsteen
Doggedly clinging to what it was all supposed to mean, and holding to faith that it might one day mean that again. Springsteen wrestling with the big questions, because he cares.
5) “American Girl,” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Just because it’s a great tune.
6) “Independence Day,” by Ani DiFranco
“We drove the car to the top of the parking ramp on the 4th of July/We sat out on the hood with a couple of warm beers and watched the fireworks explode in the sky,” DiFranco wistfully begins this tune, before delving into the ugly underneath. Powerful and poetic.
7) “Hot Dogs and Hamburgers,” by John Mellencamp
I’ll have one of each, please.
8) “America the Beautiful,” by Ray Charles
There is so much emotional complexity in Ray’s delivery. My vote for the greatest reading of a patriotic tune ever recorded.
9) “Born in the U.S.A.,” by Bruce Springsteen
Feel free to just sing along with the choruses. The verses are pretty tough. A deep song, and a thoughtfully patriotic one.
10) “American Tune,” by Paul Simon
“We come on the ship they call the Mayflower/We come on the ship that sailed the moon/We come in the age’s most uncertain hour/and sing an American tune/But it’s all right, it’s all right/You can’t be forever blessed/Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day/And I’m trying to get some rest.”
Yes. Exactly. It’s not perfect. But it’s ours.
Happy birthday, America!