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Top 10 Patriotic Oldies

Patriotic oldies music. Seems easy enough, right? Yet patriotic music behaves much like patriotism itself – it proliferates in times of crisis yet slacks off in times of plenty. This may be why the 20th century’s best songs about America were written during the Great Depression and after the Seventies. (The 60s simply polarized everything, which doesn’t necessarily result in good music.) Still, there are enough examples in rock’s Golden Age to suggest that the feeling never goes away entirely.

1. Ray Charles, “America The Beautiful”

"Ultimate Hits Collection" by Ray Charles

Has there even been a more stirring rendition of this classic, which many folks consider the “real” national anthem? There’s certainly never been a more soulful version than the one offered by The Genius. He explains, “When I was in school, we used to sing it something like this,” and then goes straight to church instead, making this paean to American glory sound like is was ordained by God. Your call, as always.

2. Chuck Berry, “Back In The U.S.A.”

Chuck Berry's "The Great Twenty-Eight"

America is many things, but it’s also a storied testament to consumerism and the wonders of dreaming big. Chuck applies his legendary songwriting skills to the subject of his country, viewing it as a outsize, fully functional El Dorado of cheesburgers and skyscrapers. And since Berry’s signature guitar style – itself as native as any cheeseburger – is present, that makes this song sound like the American Dream come to swaggering, winking life.

3. Woody Guthrie, “This Land Is Your Land”

Yes, this was written a decade and a half before rock and roll, and that makes it technically unable to take up space on this list. But the folk revival of the Sixties brought this song back in a big way, and it’s been enshrined in the national consciousness ever since, even if most listeners don’t get the dark sarcasm inherent in Guthrie’s lyrics (originally a parody of “God Bless America”). Consider this the dust bowl’s “Born In The USA.”

4. James Brown, “America Is My Home”

The Godfather of Soul flirted with social consciousness during his heyday, touching upon racism, sexism, drug abuse, and more. However, this spoken-word track was a straightforward appreciation of America’s social mobility, not some denouncement of Constitutional hypocrisy. His later hit “Living In America” offfered a “Back In The USA” style nod to ingenuity, but this one rewarded hard work itself. (And James wrote it.)

5. Elvis Presley, “An American Trilogy”

It makes sense for Elvis to sing “Dixie,” Son of the South that he was, but by pairing it with two other Civil War Standards — “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and the spiritual “All My Trials,” Presley (and original trilogy artist Mickey Newbury) the King, unwittingly or not, wound up fashioning a fascinating slice of Americana while exploring three sides of one very bloody story indeed.

6. The Impressions, “This Is My Country”

Curtis Mayfield spent a lot of time in the late Sixties being a cheerleader for his people with his group The Impressions (just as he would spend much of the Seventies lamenting what the movement turned into). This song can be viewed as it was originally intended – a claim on America from those who were forced to build much of it – but you can also hear the pride of Mayfield’s delivery and feel good about that, as well. No back to Africa movement here.

7. Johnny Horton, “The Battle Of New Orleans”

What would a list of patriotic music be without a war song? Rockabilly/folk country legend Horton also hit big with songs like “North To Alaska” and “Sink The Bismarck,” but this was his finest slice of Americana, a celebration of New Orleans’ War of 1812 routing of the British that sounds less like a dry historical lesson than a rebel war whoop.

8. John Denver, “Country Roads”

No, you don’t often think about this song when considering patriotic songs of any era, although Denver sort of stood for America himself in the early Seventies. Songs like this are much of the reason why, and this may be the best of the bunch: a gorgeous song that’s really a celebration of America’s physical beauty than its ideology. But who wants ideology all the time? Sing it with us: West Virginia, Mountain Mama…

9. Jay and the Americans, “Only In America”

Some folks mock this golden oldie as being too earnest, too stagy, too theatrical. But then, that was sort of Jay and the Americans’ raison d’etre, and they sound utterly sincere, even if the punchline here is that opportunity’s knocking at Jay’s heart, not his wallet. Still, it’s hard to argue with the pedigree — Lieber and Stoller AND Mann and Weil took a crack at this one. A nice antidote to West Side Story’s “America,” if you need such a thing.

10. Jimi Hendrix, “The Star-Spangled Banner”

The mere existence of Woodstock was a blasphemy to some segments of American culture in 1969, but Jimi Hendrix made his impromptu demolishing of the national anthem sound like the only proper closer. Even more importantly, Jimi takes the difficult melody and tortures it right back, creating an astonishing update that recontextualizes better than Warhol. You can’t sing to it, but you can admire the sheer beauty of its ferocity. And, by extension, its liberty.

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July 2, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Wow, what a great list! I’m definitely linking up with this on my website. Thanks for putting this together!

    Comment by Rock | July 4, 2010 | Reply


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