Reporter's Notebook

Songs of Complicated Patriotism
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A series of songs on American life whose refrains are often misunderstood as blindly patriotic. Submit your own recommendation to

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Track of the Day: 'Pink Houses'

Another reader, David Berzonsky, keeps a great thread going:

For ironically misunderstood patriotism, I offer you the entire John Cougar Mellencamp catalog, specifically “Pink Houses,” used in every truck commercial since the ‘80s, but really a Midwestern version of Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes.” I really feel bad for this great musician and poet, with his subtle and sad critiques of small-town life, being co-opted by right-wing American nationalism.

“Pink Houses” was used by both the 2008 McCain campaign and the National Organization for Marriage, but Mellencamp, an outspoken political liberal, got them both to cease. (David Graham has a great piece about the perennial battle between musicians and the politicians who co-opt their songs.) Another bit of trivia on “Pink Houses”:

A reader submits an especially dark song for the series on misunderstood patriotism:

Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” which is really about a domestic violence survivor finally killing her abuser, was tastelessly co-opted and manipulated by Sean Hannity [when he adopted it as the theme song for his radio show].

Gretchen Peters, who wrote the song, dislikes Hannity but was unable to prevent him from using it. Instead, she donated the royalties to liberal activist groups such as and PFLAG. Peters did the same when Sarah Palin used “Independence Day” at the 2008 vice-presidential debate.

Our latest song of complicated patriotism—a ‘60s protest song from Phil Ochs, “one of the harshest critics of the American military and industrial establishment”—was recommend by this reader:

Thanks for doing this series. When I was young, I was kind of the “patriotic” type, at first just because I liked fireworks on the Fourth of July and thought history and war were cool. When I was maybe 11 or 12, I remember my dad playing “Power and the Glory” by Phil Ochs and telling me while tearing up (very unusually for him) that “This is what real patriotism is.”

Ever since then, that’s what my understanding of patriotism has become. Countries, after all, aren’t anything more than all of their people together, and the point of this song is that we have responsibilities to each other. Put another way, the only way to make America glorious (or great) is to build each other up, help your community, and so forth. Otherwise, you’re just dealing with appearances and mythology. Like the landscape, those can look beautiful, but real glory is in people.

An interesting bit of trivia about the song:

A fourth verse, not added to the final production release, but confirmed to exist by Ochs’ sister Sonny contains a call to action:

Yet our land is still troubled by men who have to hate
They twist away our freedom and they twist away our fate
Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry.
We can stop them if we try.

A reader writes:

Here’s a footnote to your posting of “This Land Is Your Land” you may find interesting. This part you may already know: Woody Guthrie was a registered Communist, that by “This Land Is Your Land” he meant literally that there should be no such thing as private property, and that he wrote the song specifically as a rebuttal to the explosive popularity of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

Here’s the footnote: In 1989, the Grammy Awards put Guthrie’s recording into the “Grammy Hall Of Fame,” a category reserved for material that existed before the Grammys existed or that in retrospect was embarrassingly ignored. Then in 1999, they included the recording in a 4-CD set called The Ultimate Grammy Box.

But they censored it! 

A reader circles back to our songs of complicated patriotism:

Almost everything the great, sardonic songwriter Randy Newman has ever written has been misconstrued, from the scathing “Rednecks” to the sly “I Love L.A.” to this fairly recent song on the absolute greatness of the U.S.A., “A Few Words in the Defense of Our Country.”

On the meaning of “I Love L.A.”:

This song is an example of Newman’s ambivalence toward the American Dream, as it celebrates living the dream (“look at that mountain, look at those trees”), while giving a nod to those who have been unable to fulfill the dream (“look at that bum over there; man, he’s down on his knees”).

John Gurnick is the latest reader contributor to the series on complicated patriotism:

I submit Mister Dylan’s song for these lyrics:

They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king

It’s also a complicated ballad for other reasons:

Oliver Trager’s book, Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, mentions that some have criticized this song as sexist. Indeed, music critic Tim Riley makes that accusation in his book, Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary, singling out lyrics like “a woman like you should be at home/That's where you belong/Taking care of somebody nice/Who don't know how to do you wrong.” However, Trager also cites other interpretations that dispute this claim.[7] Some have argued that “Sweetheart Like You” is being sung to the Christian church (“what's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?”), claiming that Dylan is mourning the church’s deviation from scriptural truth.

(Track of the Day archive here. Access it through Spotify here. Submit via hello@)