[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Mediaite.com on July 4, 2014, and has been republished for your enjoyment this year.]
Happy 4th of July, loyal Mediaite readers! While you kick back for the long weekend, check out these 15 essential songs (plus 10+ bonuses) about and/or inspired by America, for your cook-out listening enjoyment.
In no particular order, below:
Johnny Cash – “Ragged Old Flag”
Oh, Johnny Cash, only you can make us cry on July 4th. While other country stars have taken to writing hokey patriotic songs (Lee Greenwood‘s terrible tune comes to mind), you can count on the Man in Black to write the most honest, heartrending tribute to this great country — warts and all.
Using a small town’s tattered old flag as a symbol for America’s history, Cash’s spoken word delivers testimony on heroism, strife, loss, victory, scandal, and abuse. But while she’s seen it all in her 200-year history, that ragged old flag still stands all above the town’s courthouse, and Cash believes “she can take a whole lot more.”
All-American lyrics: “She’s been burned, dishonored, denied an’ refused / And the government for which she stands / Has been scandalized throughout out the land / And she’s getting thread bare, and she’s wearin’ thin / But she’s in good shape for the shape she’s in / ‘Cause she’s been through the fire before / And I believe she can take a whole lot more”
Jimi Hendrix – “The Star-Spangled Banner”
America invented rock ‘n’ roll. And Jimi Hendrix‘s jaw-dropping 1969 performance at Woodstock perfectly demonstrates that with this controversial guitar-shredding solo version of America’s national anthem. At the time, nannying elders said it was a blasphemous rendition, but as Hendrix said, “I thought it was beautiful.”
All-American lyrics: “Dur nur-nur nur nur nurrrrrrr / Chrrrrrrrng”
Bill Callahan – “America!”
Most of you won’t know his music, but the lo-fi singer/songwriter has been around for 24 years and this sprawling reflection upon our nation is arguably one of his finest tunes. Part of what makes America so fascinating is the freedom to be as weird as you want, and Callahan’s music embraces that: This song, in particular, illustrates with wild colors the rich cultural impact of our titular nation, while alternately using an acid tongue to lash our imperialistic tendencies.
All-American lyrics: “America! / I watch David Letterman in Australia / Oh, America! / You are so grand and gold, golden / I wish I was on the next flight to America”
Kanye West & Jay Z – “Made in America”
America’s not just the heartland, baseball, and hot dogs. It’s also inner-city struggle and the desire for a better life by any means. When hip-hop megastars Jay Z and Kanye West got together for their massive Watch the Throne (2011) collaborative album, one of the products was this solemn track. While detailing their individual rags-to-riches stories — cleverly bending clichés like “liberty” and “freedom” — the pair reflect upon black history and their place in inheriting that legacy from the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
All-American lyrics: “Sweet king Martin / Sweet queen Coretta / Sweet brother Malcolm / Sweet queen Betty / Sweet mother Mary / Sweet father Joseph / Sweet Jesus / We made it in America”
Simon and Garfunkel – “America”
We’ve all dreamt of setting out on our own to go looking for something — whether it’s some broken dream, a new beginning, or a lost ideal, it’s all part of a distinctly American trope. Among the many climactic moments in the Simon and Garfunkel canon, there are few as emotionally riveting as when Simon says of all the faceless drivers speeding their cars down the turnpike: “They’ve all come to look for America.”
All-American lyrics: “Counting the cars / On the New Jersey Turnpike / They’ve all come to look for America”
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