Not nearly enough Americans are aware that much of what the country considers our most patriotic music was created by artists and writers of decidedly left-wing sympathies. In that spirit, here is my highly debatable list of Top 10 Fourth of July Songs, presented in random order. These songs, taken together, make clear both what’s great about the US and what still needs critical attention.
1. Los Lobos with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, This Land is Your Land
This rambling version of the iconic Woody Guthrie song was performed July 22, 1989 backstage at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin between sets on that summer’s Los Lobos/Grateful Dead tour.
2. Bruce Springsteen, Chimes of Freedom
Sony Music has made it impossible to watch Bob Dylan performing his classic ode to “the refugees on their unarmed road of flight.” Fortunately, Bruce Springsteen acquits himself well in this live 1988 cover.
3. Paul Robeson, The House I Live In
Written in 1943 by Abel Meeropol under the pen name Lewis Allen, this tune became a patriotic anthem during World War II with its populist evocation of everyday American life.
4. Phil Ochs, The Power and Glory
One of the songs that established Ochs’s reputation, he saw it as a patriotic hymn combining the American dream with selfless faith-based ideals.
5. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Battle Hymn of the Republic
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written in 1861 by abolitionist, social activist, and poet Julia Ward Howe, set to music composed by William Steffe.
6. Loretta Lynn, Dear Uncle Sam
This Vietnam-era plea on behalf of soldier-husbands everywhere resonated far beyond the traditional, antiwar crowd when it was released in 1968.
7. Johnny Cash, Ragged Old Flag
Using a small town’s tattered old flag as a symbol for America’s conflicted history, Cash’s spoken word delivers testimony on heroism, strife, loss, victory, scandal, and abuse.
8. Rosanne Cash, 500 Miles
Originally written by Hedy West, this song became popular in the US during the 1960s folk revival and was part of a list of 100 essential American songs that Johnny Cash famously gave his daughter Rosanne. In 2009, she produced a brilliant album featuring her versions of 12 of the 100.
9. Leontyne Price, America the Beautiful
Written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College, this song not only speaks to the natural beauty of America but also expresses Bates’s view that US imperialism undermined the nation’s core values. In this version, opera star Leontyne Price performs at a 1992 benefit.
10. Gil Scott-Heron, Winter in America
One of Scott–Heron’s most well-received compositions, this bluesy lament mourns America’s lost promise: “And ain’t nobody fighting,/ ’Cause nobody knows what to save.”
Bonus Track #1: Sarah Ogan Gunning, Come All Ye Coal Miners
This song gives voice to the frequently forgotten workers who built the foundation and infrastructure of modern America.
Bonus Track #2: Simon & Garfunkel, America
Inspired by a 1964 road trip across the US, new meaning was infused into this song for a younger generation by Bernie Sanders’s now-famous commercial.
Bonus Track #3: Jay-Z and Kanye West, Made in America
While detailing their rags-to-riches stories, these hip-hop superstars reflect on black history and their role in uplifting that legacy.
Bonus Track #4: Prince, America
Prince wrote this funk-rock protest song in 1985 about the oft-ignored underbelly of the country he loved.