Reporter's Notebook

Songs of Complicated Patriotism
Show Description +

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

Show 1 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'I Love L.A.'

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”).

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! 

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 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.

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 another song of complicated patriotism:

I think Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” fits into this form (if not obviously). It would seem to be one Springsteen’s most significant influences. Perhaps my elementary school’s music teacher of the early 1970s was tactically subversive (which he may have been), but this song was taught to us as a patriotic anthem.

Earlier submissions include “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Born in the U.S.A” and “America.”

In my earlier note featuring “Born in the U.S.A.” and “America,” I asked readers if they knew of other songs that convey the kind of complicated patriotism their refrains might betray. One reader who delivers via hello@:

Next in line has surely got to be “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young. The chorus itself is a great cheer of ambiguity and willful ignorance.

Another reader notes:

You don’t need to read far to get what Neil Young’s saying, but don’t miss the second verse, featuring a hopeless crack addict throwing her infant in a trash can. Uplifting!

Full lyrics below. Here’s some context for the song:

A reader remarks on a video flagged by a previous reader showing old images of U.S. immigrants juxtaposed with David Bowie’s rendition of Paul Simon’s “America”:

The reader claims that the line “they’ve all come to look for America” reflects a “pro-immigrant, anti-nativist.” But the line didn’t refer to immigrants coming to America; it was about disillusionment. See this great response by Ross Barkan in The Observer.

Here’s Barkan:

The irony, though, is that “America” is probably not the song Mr. Sanders’ operatives think it is. Like Ronald Reagan, the Republican president who mistook Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” for a cheerful patriotic anthem when it was really an indictment of the Vietnam War [illustrated by the haunting mashup seen above, juxtaposing Springsteen’s song with scenes from Full Metal Jacket], the ambience of this spot doesn’t match the meaning of the lyrics in full.