Random Thoughts

Patriotic songs and why I like them

... narrowed down to my four favorites

by Ann Robbins Talbot

In the forties every school day began with the Pledge of Allegiance followed by singing a patriotic song. By fourth grade we had quite a repertoire to choose from: “Hail, Columbia” “My Country Tis of Thee” “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean”. ”The Star Spangled Banner” was never chosen because it was so difficult to sing. However we were fascinated by its history. A lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was on a ship watching the battle at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. As day dawned, the American flag was still flying and he was inspired to write the words to the national anthem. Today this huge flag, in terrible condition, can be seen in the Smithsonian behind glass, not waving. But we are still inspired by:

        “O say does that star spangled banner yet wave
          O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”

It is odd to think that there are patriotic songs all over the world, most of which we do not even recognize. It is always interesting at the Olympic Games to hear national anthems other than our own played in honor of the gold medalist. The only ones I am sure of are France and Canada. I think England’s is “God Save the Queen”, but I am not positive. “The Star Spangled Banner” often elicits tears from those who won for the USA.

One of my personal favorites grew up with me. Presented in final form and broadcast on Armistice Day in 1938 by Kate Smith, “God Bless America” was written by famous composer Irving Berlin. This song was a hot item in my early years especially in sales of sheet music. At a Veterans’ Day buffet I attended just after September eleventh, the food line was interrupted to have a local clergyman say Grace. At once the crowd spontaneously burst into:

      “God Bless America, land that I love
    Stand beside her and guide her
    Through the night with the light from above
    From the mountains, to the prairies,
    To the ocean white with foam
    God Bless America, my home sweet home”

As I graduated from college in the middle fifties, Woody Guthrie came out with “This Land is Your Land”. It became the favorite patriotic song of my sixth grade students. Easy to sing with a great rhythm, it also mentions the diversity of land in the United States. My retirement gift in 1990 was a month-long freighter trip on the Cast Musk Ox from Montreal to Antwerp and back. Coming home across the border from Canada, we were touched by the rows of American flags framing the road. We drove away from the customs cabin singing:

      “This land is your land, this land is my land
    From California, to the New York Island
    From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
    This land is made for you and me”

Another modern patriotic song that I really like is by Lee Greenwood of country and western fame. The chorus goes:

      “I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free
    And I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me
    And I gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today
    ‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land. God bless the USA”

One year on our March trip to Florida, we drove down to see the winter quarters of the beautiful white Lipizzaner Stallions and watch them perform. A century or more ago the horses were trained for battle. The unusual posture of standing on their hind feet gave the general in charge of a battle the chance to get up high enough to view the whole scene. The horses also have a graceful jump motion. The finale of the show included a dozen of these powerful stallions at top speed with each rider carrying a big American flag blowing in the wind. The audience was invited to stand and sing along to Lee Greenwood’s record of “God Bless the USA” at top volume – a very moving experience. This song exemplifies the definition of a patriot – “a person who loves, supports and defends his country.”

My very favorite patriotic song has always been “America, the Beautiful” written by Katharine Lee Bates. She was an instructor at Wellesley College and wrote the words as a result of a trip to Pikes Peak in Colorado. My trip to Pikes Peak was not as inspiring. In 1974 our family was on a ten-week camping trip across the country. We certainly wanted to see what Katie Lee had seen. (My husband was teacher and later principal of Bates School in Wellesley – hence the familiar nickname.) Being nervous about high places, I should have been smart enough to sit behind the driver rather than in the passenger seat. But there I was, looking over the side of the mountain with no guard rail. The higher we got, the bleaker the landscape until there were no trees to break our possible fall. It was white knuckle time. Purple mountain majesty? I just wanted to get out of the car, now beginning to sound odd from the strain of climbing in second gear at 23 miles per hour. To add to my distress, we kept passing turnoffs on the down side of the two-lane road for cooling the car’s brakes on the return trip. When we finally got to the top, I scrambled out into the thinnest air I’d ever experienced. Gasping for breath, I spent my time dreading the trip down instead of admiring the fruitful plain. Our famous journal, in my son’s writing, states: “We went up Pikes Peek. Mom was scared to death (not kidding).” Katharine Lee Bates was a very brave woman. She wrote:

      “O beautiful for spacious skies
    For amber waves of grain    
    For purple mountain majesties
    Above the fruited plain
    America! America!
    God shed His grace on thee
    And crown thy good with brotherhood
    From sea to shining sea.”

“America the Beautiful” is such an inclusive song featuring the geographic beauty and the brave history of the country. In the first line of each verse is found a wonderful summary: “O beautiful for spacious skies, for pilgrim feet, for heroes prov’d, for patriots dream.” At one time there was a drive to make this our national anthem because it is so singable, but nothing came of it. Probably no other appropriate phrase will ever supersede “the land of the free and the home of the brave”.

July 3, 2009

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