Music is widely seen as a window into the spirit of the time it was written. Patriotic music is a prime example of this. The experience of a nation is told through patriotic music in a way that other forms of music often miss. Whether it be the pride of victory or a vocal expression of the beauty a nation possesses, there is something about patriotic music that speaks directly to national identity.
American patriotic music is no different. The early days of our short history were marked by celebrations of our independent nature and the beauty of our countryside. Songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” told the story of changing identity from a colony of England to a land with its own culture and values. While originally written to make fun of Americans, we as a nation took that song and made it a national emblem.
Much of America’s early patriotic music took from older songs to create something that represented us. This is fitting, as our nation has, over the years, taken the best of older governments and cultures and turned them into something uniquely American. Songs like “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” used existing music with new words, reflecting our identity in a very deep way.
Over time, the American patriotic tune began to evolve. During the Civil War, competing ideas of American values appeared in song, just as they did in daily life. Songs like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” spoke passionately of the preservation of our union while songs like “Dixie’s Land” recalled the traditions ingrained in many parts of the nation. Both valued different aspects of our nation at the time, and while the two sides fought each other violently, both were American in their own right.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the landscape of American patriotic music began to shift toward a more soaring, bold quality. While the march style of music had existed for some time, it was around this time that the American march had its heyday with John Philip Sousa. These songs were rousing tunes that evoked feelings of American splendor and power. Inspired by both our wondrous scenery and growing military might, the popularity of the American march was a product of national pride. It is easy to see why, even to this day, marches are one of the most popular forms of patriotic music.
But music is never finished evolving. The middle of the last century saw a drastic change in the way songwriters dealt with themes of patriotism and national pride. Songs like “War” by Edwin Starr, “Ohio” by CSNY, and “The Times They Are a-Changing’” by Bob Dylan were part of a growing movement of protest music. This movement raised the question, is there room for a wider interpretation of what makes music patriotic? Is patriotism a matter of standing by your nation, adding to its resolve or can it also include speaking out critically? These open ended questions are well worth taking the time to debate.
What remains true, regardless, is that patriotic music is a window into history, not just in terms of events, but also in terms of attitudes. Many of the best patriotic songs from history are still popular today, which speaks to the nature of our identity. We are a nation steeped in traditions that we hold dear, with freedoms not known in darker corners of the world. This is the truth we celebrate when we play patriotic tunes and the way of life we share when we pass them down to future generations.