We’ve all heard them. Those songs that seem to speak to a population’s sense of patriotism, that seem meant to be sung at 4th of July parades, backyard BBQs and political rallies for decades. Most of those songs were written by musical legends, and while most of the songs that celebrate pride in one’s country, America as far as this list is concerned, are indeed understood correctly by those enjoying them, a celebration of one’s nation and citizenship, some of the most notable classics in American music, while on the surface seem as patriotic as anything, are in fact critiques, sometimes scathing, of the American government, the American way of life, and the American dream. The fact that the songs on this list were ever heard of as patriotic and not as anything but critical is relatively shocking, but, in the pop music age where a chorus is all that matters, the lyrics in the rest of the song are oft overlooked; which is a shame, as the messages contained within these songs offer a wholly different view of the American dream, and the toll it takes on the working class and the poor. Here are five songs, spanning five decades that on the surface seem to speak to the very heart of American patriotism, but in fact are singing about quite the opposite.
5. Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Upon first listen, you may be forgiven, albeit briefly, for assuming CCR’s classic protest song “Fortunate Son” is in some way patriotic. Hell, the opening line is “some folks are born made to wave the flag, oh, they’re red, white and blue” but that’s about where any thread of patriotism ends though. The rest of the song is an anti-war anthem that reflects the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. and speaks to the fact that while the elites with money run the country, it is the poor Americans who are always sent off to war. Because the narrator “ain’t no senator’s son, and ain’t no fortunate son” means he himself is heading off to war, while those in power remain at an arms length from the cost of imperialism. Released during America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, “Fortunate Son” never directly confronts that particular war, and whether through foresight on songwriter John Fogerty’s part, or as a way to lessen the criticism the song may have received from a relatively pro-war America in 1968, because of it’s ambiguity “Fortunate Son” is as poignant an anti-war anthem now as it was almost 50 years ago.
4. American Pie – Don McLean
This is a tough one to discern. Don McLean’s 1971 magnum opus, “American Pie” seems wholly patriotic, an ode to driving a Chevy, songs about faith and belief, and a celebration of the classic rock and roll music that came before him. The title even refers to the iconic ideal of as “American as apple pie,” but somewhere within all of the references to rock and roll “American Pie” is truly a song about the death of the American dream, and the ideals that defined the nation throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.
As McLean’s song progresses, the verses move from referencing Sunday school songs “and do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so?” and the popular sock hops of the fifties “you both kicked off your shoes,” to the social upheaval of the 1960s with lines like “and in the streets the children screamed” referencing the campus violence over the Vietnam protests and the violence surrounding the Civil Rights Movement.
Furthermore, McLean sings about the Altamont Speedway incident where Hell’s Angels hired as security for a Rolling Stones concert killed a member of the audience, and finally infers that God has left America, first stating, “I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died” and ultimately singing “and the three men I admire most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast.”
In the end, it’s the chorus that drives the message home: “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie…” goodbye to the American dream, leaving the “good old boys” to drink “whiskey and rye” lamenting the good old days, “singing this will be the day that I die.” “American Pie”, more of a tragic lament about the “day the (dream) music died” than a patriotic ode.
3. This Land Is Your Land – Woody Guthrie
The most iconic song to be lauded as a patriotic anthem is perhaps the most ironic as well. Every school child remembers singing verses of quintessential folk hero Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” as the songs as become canonized in American culture. In fact, the song was selected by the Library of Congress to be included in the National Recording Registry in 2002. It truly is one of America’s most well known and beloved songs and one that is most often thought of as being patriotic. The problem? According to his close friend Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie was a communist. And the song, even down to the title, reflects that if one looks close enough. Written as a response to “God Bless America” and what Guthrie saw as its unrealistic portrait of life in the United States and capitalism, even the popular version of the song, which omits two overtly political verses, has a feel of community, this land being made for you and me. It is in the original lyrics of the version from 1940 however, where Guthrie’s political views shine. First, his disdain for private property in verse four:
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me,
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the backside it didn’t say nothing,
This land was made for you and me.
Beyond making his feelings about private property known, Guthrie also lamented the poor, and whether America was indeed “made for you and me” after all in the songs final, most obvious 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
This land was made for you and me.
Next time you hear “This Land is your Land” and feel a patriotic glow, remember these two verses, and remember it was written by a communist.
2. Pink Houses – John Mellencamp
A far less critical and overtly un-patriotic song than number one on this list, “Pink Houses” is, nonetheless, another subtle dig at the death of the American dream and a discussion of the discrepancies between wealth in the U.S. during the 1980s and Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The song most touches on not the death of an ideal, but more so the complacency in which those who have seen their dreams come and go settle into.
The first verse:
There’s a black man with a black cat,
Living in a black neighborhood,
He’s got an interstate running’ through his front yard,
You know, he thinks, he’s got it so good
The man in this verse wouldn’t have known anything better than what he had, his Interstate front yard, and his cat, but he sure would have heard all about the American dream, being able to accomplish anything during the early 1980s when Reagan was President. But who was the American dream really made for? Not the black man in his black neighborhood. Nor for the “young man” who’s “got a greasy hair and a greasy smile” who was told when he was younger “boy, you’re gonna be president.” Like Mellencamp says for millions of Americans “like everything else, those old crazy dreams, just kinda came and went.” And yet, in the chorus Mellencamp sings:
But ain’t that America, for you and me,
Ain’t that America, we’re something to see baby,
Ain’t that America, home of the free, yeah,
Little pink houses, for you and me
And that’s the chorus that promotes the patriotic flag waving; the chorus politician’s have used to inspire patriotism the country over. And yet, it’s a ruse. The chorus is entirely complacent, like the song’s central characters. It’s a defeated chorus, not a patriotic one, a dig by Mellencamp at the idea of an American dream for everyone, if anyone at all. Don’t buy it? Well, Mellencamp said of the song “it’s really an anti-American song… the American dream had pretty much proven itself as not working anymore.”
1. Born in the U.S.A. – Bruce Springsteen
Arguably the most recognizable chorus to be sung about America of all time, it seems that’s about all anyone who thinks this classic is a patriotic American anthem hears. Easily the most misconstrued song on this list, you’re not alone if you thought the chorus was more fist pumping, flag waving pride than biting sarcasm.
Ronald Reagan went so far as to not listen to the entire song in 1984 when he used it for his Presidential campaign. Springsteen told him to stop using the song, but it would be nice, though idealistic, to think it actually would have been more effective if he didn’t. Much like CCR’s “Fortunate Son” but much more overt, “Born in the U.S.A.” is a vitriolic indictment on the Vietnam War and the reliance on America of its working class and poor youth to perpetuate its militaristic aims across the globe. With minimal prospects for education or a good job, many of those “born down in a dead man’s town” where Springsteen sings you “end up like a dog that’s been beat too much” join the military, and get sent “off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man.”
When the veterans return they are left again with few options. They’re told “son don’t you understand now,” or end up “in the shadow of penitentiary” and ultimately “ten years burning down the road, nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.” The song is as important now as it was when it was recorded, with our generation living in the shadow of the Iraq War and the Veterans Hospital scandal. The fact that these lyrics have been so blatantly ignored for thirty years, and the fact that the chorus still remains a patriotic call to arms, despite its clear sarcasm and sneer at the establishment easily makes Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” the most famous example of a song you thought was patriotic, but clearly isn’t.