'America the Beautiful,' 'Yankee Doodle,' 'God Bless America': The origins of these patriotic songs

·11 min read

On July 4, we sing America's praises. And by sing, we do mean sing.

There have probably been more love songs dedicated to Uncle Sam than to all the girls named Marie in all the country songs ever written.

"America the Beautiful," "My Country 'Tis of Thee," "You're a Grand Old Flag," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Yankee Doodle," "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean," "God Bless America," "This Land is Your Land," "The Yankee Doodle Boy," and of course "The Star-Spangled Banner." And that's just for starters.

"There's something about a song that is unique, because it combines words and music, so it speaks to our emotions," says Angus Kress Gillespie, professor of American studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

Songs are something we can all agree on. Even if, in these divisive times, we don't seem to agree on much else.

"These songs work on us on an entirely different level," Gillespie says. "We're not debating the constitution, or talking about the makeup of Congress. We're coming together emotionally, rather than rationally. It feels good."

Behind every one of these star-spangled songs is a story. Sometimes a weird one.

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'The Star-Spangled Banner'

You probably know the tale of our national anthem: 1814, Francis Scott Key, siege of Fort McHenry, the American flag still flying in the morning. Yada yada yada.

But did you know where the tune comes from?

A historical American flag flies over Fort McHenry in Baltimore on March 30, 2019, as tourists visit the historical monument.
A historical American flag flies over Fort McHenry in Baltimore on March 30, 2019, as tourists visit the historical monument.

It is from a song of – shall we say – questionable character. Some would call it a drinking song. Some would call it worse.

"The Anacreontic Song", also called "To Anacreon in Heaven", was the anthem of an 18th-century British gentlemen's club. Composed by John Stafford Smith, its original lyrics ran: "To Anacreon in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee / A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition." (Try singing it to the tune of the "Star-Spangled Banner.")

Anacreon was a Greek poet. He was known, especially, for drinking songs and erotic poetry. The song is a plea for inspiration in both departments. "That he their Inspirer and Patron would be."

From heaven – in the midst of who knows what debauch – Anacreon sends a reply: "I'll instruct you, like me, to intwine, The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."

Bacchus, as in drink. Venus, as in sex. Basically, this song is a request to a heavenly playboy: "Will you be the MC of our stag party?"

That's what you're singing at the beginning of every football game.

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'Yankee Doodle'

We love ourselves some Yankees. We cheer them in the Bronx. We send the Yanks "Over There." And of course "Yankee Doodle Dandy" conjures up pictures of George Washington, Valley Forge and the heroes of 1776.

Well, sorry to disappoint. But "Yankee Doodle," the hero of that popular Revolutionary War ditty, was a clod.

"Doodle" is 18th-century-ese for "nincompoop."

"Yankee Doodle came to town / Riding on a pony" was originally a British song, from the point of view of the Europeans. Look at that ridiculous American!

Yankee Doodle then makes himself even more embarrassing by sticking a feather in his cap and calling it "Macaroni." A "Macaroni," in those days, was a dandy, a fop – in line with contemporary prejudice that Italians were effeminate.

But Yankee Doodle isn't even a fop. He's a wannabe fop. "Stuck a feather in his cap and called it Macaroni" is the equivalent of "Dyed my hair green and called myself Lady Gaga."

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'You're a Grand Old Flag'

This song might have gotten you into a fight – if you sang it with the original lyrics.

"You're a Grand Old Flag" was first published and performed in 1906 as "You're a Grand Old Rag."

It wasn't meant as an insult. George M. Cohan, the musical comedy writer famous for this, "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Over There," and other patriotic tunes, had no beef with the flag. Neither did the old Civil War veteran he had encountered carrying a tattered but much-loved flag – possibly from Gettysburg, where he'd fought. "She's a grand old rag," the man had remarked wistfully.

Cohan was taken with the phrase. So much so that he wrote a song about it. And so much so that even when people started complaining ("You can't call the Stars and Stripes that!"), he was loath to change the lyric.

He tried "You're a grand old flag / Though you're torn to a rag." No sale. Finally, reluctantly, he changed it to, "You're a grand old flag, you're a high-flying flag."

Which is a non-rhyme – but at least it didn't offend the music-buying public. "You're a Grand Old Flag," in sheet-music form, became the first million-selling musical comedy song.

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'My Country 'Tis of Thee'

You will have noticed that the tune of this familiar song – a de facto national anthem for many years, until "The Star-Spangled Banner" became our official one in 1931 – is the same as "God Save the Queen."

What you may not know is that the same tune is used in dozens of countries.

It's the national anthem of Liechtenstein: "Oben am jungen Rhein." It's the royal anthem of Norway: "Kongesangen." The Swiss call it "Rufst du, mein Vaterland" (it's their former national anthem). Germany and Russia have their own versions.

“All the brass instruments and big drums in the world cannot turn 'God Save the King' into a good tune," remarked George Orwell in 1943. Clearly the minority opinion.

But did you know that, even in America, there were two versions of "My Country 'Tis of Thee"?

There's the one you grew up with. And there was an abolitionist version, popular in the 1840s, which you probably did not sing in grade school: "My native country, thee / Where all men are born free, if white's their skin…"

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'The Stars and Stripes Forever'

If you were at a circus or the theater, and the house band started playing this beloved 1896 march by John Philip Sousa, you knew you were in trouble.

That march, back in the day, had a very specific meaning. It meant: Get out!

"The Disaster March," as it was known in the trade, was never to be played except in the case of the most extreme emergency. The march was code. The point was to signal the staff, without letting the public know.

This was the music people heard at the infamous fire at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, according to historian Michael Skidgell ("The Hartford Circus Fire: Tragedy Under the Big Top," 2014). For some, it was the last music they heard. At least 168 were killed that day, and the incident led to Ringling Bros. abandoning the canvas "big top" in favor of arenas.

People flee a fire in the big top of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 6, 1944.
People flee a fire in the big top of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 6, 1944.

But it didn't lessen the popularity of "The Stars and Stripes Forever." In 1987, "The Disaster March" became the national march of the U.S.

'God Bless America'

This is the song many people wish was our national anthem – if only because Irving Berlin's tune is easier to sing than "The Star-Spangled Banner."

But people have loved "God Bless America" ever since Kate Smith introduced it on her Armistice Day broadcast in 1938. Coming on the eve of World War II (it was actually a rewritten version of a song Berlin had penned in 1918, for the previous war, but never published), the song seemed like a national prayer for deliverance in a dark moment. Since then, "God Bless America" has been popular in good times and bad. Presidents since Ronald Reagan have invariably ended their speeches with, "God Bless America."

Where did Irving Berlin get the inspiration for this passionate, transcendent hymn to all things American?

Apparently, from a 1906 novelty song called "When Mose with his Nose Leads the Band."

At least, the first six notes of the chorus are the same as "God Bless America," as music historian Jody Rosen has pointed out.

Such humorous "ethnic" ditties were all the rage in the early 1900s, when Berlin began his career. "It Takes the Irish to Beat the Dutch," "Come Down to Your Italian Romeo," "Abraham Jefferson Washington Lee" were some of the more mentionable ones.

Berlin, though Jewish himself, was not above writing "Yiddle on Your Fiddle Play Some Ragtime." So Mose and his nose were probably not unknown to him.

From such questionable beginnings came a patriotic treasure. Only in America.

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'This Land Is Your Land'

"Answer records" are an old story in pop music. Chuck Berry wrote "Back in the U.S.A.," The Beatles responded with "Back in the U.S.S.R." Tenafly's Lesley Gore answered her own hit, "It's My Party and I'll Cry if I Want to" with "It's Judy's Turn to Cry." In 1984, the hip-hop hit "Roxanne, Roxanne" was followed by "Roxanne's Revenge," "Do the Roxanne," "The Parents of Roxanne," "Roxanne's a Man" and at long last "The Final Word – No More Roxanne (Please)."

This is the great tradition that folk singer Woody Guthrie was tapping into when he responded in 1945 to "God Bless America" with "This Land Is Your Land" – originally titled "God Blessed America for Me."

He had become tired, he tells us, of hearing "God Bless America" everywhere – he felt it was jingoistic. The original lyrics contained verses (often omitted now) critical of capitalism and private property: "There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me / Sign was painted, it said private property / But on the back side it didn't say nothing / This land was made for you and me."

The chorus was meant to be confrontational. This land is made for you and me – not them (millionaires and big business).

"Dust Bowl Ballads," Woody Guthrie's 1940 album, "could not be more relevant to today," says Anna Canoni, vice president of Woody Guthrie Publications Inc.
"Dust Bowl Ballads," Woody Guthrie's 1940 album, "could not be more relevant to today," says Anna Canoni, vice president of Woody Guthrie Publications Inc.

Ironically this song, with its left-wing lyrics, is now widely viewed as a patriotic anthem equal to "God Bless America" – most people, if pressed, could not detect any difference in sentiment. Both were added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in the same year: 2002.

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'America the Beautiful'

Get me a rewrite! The original 1893 version by Katharine Lee Bates began, "O great for halcyon skies, for amber waves of grain / For purple mountain majesties, above the enameled plain."

Do you really want Ray Charles to sing that? May we suggest "spacious skies" and "fruited plain"? What a difference a word makes!

And while we're on the subject of "America the Beautiful," let's give a shout-out to the LGBTQ+ community – In 2015, Bates was one of 31 gay icons named by Equality Forum for LGBT History Month.

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'Only in America'

Get Me Rewrite – Part 2. "Only in America" was a No. 25 Billboard hit for Jay and the Americans in 1963. And its sunny optimism struck a chord with lots of people. Cuban immigrants, fleeing Castro, made it a kind of anthem: "Only in America / Can a guy from anywhere go to sleep a pauper and wake up a millionaire."

But those weren't the original lyrics.

Songwriters Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil originally intended the song for The Drifters, the Black R&B group that had hits with songs like "Up on the Roof" and "On Broadway." And the original lyrics were quite different: "Only in America / Land of opportunity / Can they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me."

No can do, said Atlantic Records – which refused to release a song with such incendiary lyrics.

The Drifters refused to release the rewritten version. So the original instrumental track was used to back up the white group Jay and The Americans, who could sing the cheerful new words with some conviction.

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As hopefully we will all do this July 4, as "America the Beautiful," "This Land Is Your Land" and "Yankee Doodle" bring us together in song.

Assuming we can be brought together, these days, by anything.

"The Fourth of July gives us an opportunity to put aside our disagreements and come together for love of country," Gillespie says. "That's when we see that coming together, rallying together."

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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Patriotic songs like 'The Star-Spangled Banner' have curious origins