A story Sunday on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” noted that fewer children are familiar with some of the patriotic songs that their parents and grandparents learned to sing in school.
At a time when we demand that schools emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics for students, other subjects can get pushed aside in a school day with only so many hours. Too often, that has meant the arts and music get less time in the classroom.
Regardless of how our schools balance the day’s lessons, that doesn’t mean that parents, grandparents and other family members can’t take some responsibility for passing along songs that connect us as Americans.
NPR talked with E. D. Hirsch Jr., author of “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” which included several such songs in its list of essential pieces of knowledge. This is why these songs are important:
“There is something that joins us as a community,” Hirsch said. “You as a Democrat and I as a Republican do not belong to different tribes. The country was instituted to overcome this tribalism. So the sense of that larger community is where the patriotic songs come in. We share these songs, these hymns, so to speak.”
On this Fourth of July, we’d like to make a case for a short list of songs to sing to our kids, so that they might teach their children.
“The Star-Spangled Banner:” Along with the Pledge of Allegiance, most kids certainly are still learning our national anthem. Many people have mixed feelings about Francis Scott Key’s poem about the Battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812; not over what it’s about but rather that the British song to which it is sung spans two octaves and can be difficult to sing. Still, the song’s line asking, “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave?” challenges us to remember that the flag, like the country, endures even in difficult times.
“America, the Beautiful”: If some other song were to be adopted as our national anthem, “America, the Beautiful,” would be the choice of many. It has, in fact, been the subject of numerous pieces of legislation seeking that designation. Katharine Lee Bates wrote it as a poem following a visit to the Pikes Peak in 1893. Along with praising the nation’s amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties, it asks God to “crown thy good with brotherhood,” another timely reminder.
“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”: Written in 1908, the song will be familiar to anyone who has been to a baseball game. The song is a celebration of baseball, but it’s so much a part of our shared American culture — down to the Cracker Jack — that it, like the national anthem, calls for us to stand and sing together.
“We Shall Overcome”: Its roots are in African American hymns of the early 20th century, and it became the rallying anthem of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, sung at marches and sit-ins. A Library of Congress article notes that President Lyndon Johnson, vowing to fight for voting rights for all Americans, used it as a promise.
“My Country ‘Tis of Thee”: Another of those that borrowed its music from the Brits — “God Save the Queen” — its celebration of the “sweet land of liberty” was immortalized by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“This Land is Your Land”: There might not be a better song to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Parks Service than Woody Gutherie’s classic folk song. Written in 1940 during the Depression, Guthrie wrote the tune in answer to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which he felt glossed over the inequitable distribution of land and wealth in the country at the time, according to a Library of Congress article. After each stanza’s description of America, Guthrie reminds us, “This land was made for you and me.”
There are many others that deserve consideration, including “Home on the Range,” “Red River Valley,” “Yankee Doodle,” Shenandoah” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” You will have your own favorites. Whatever the song, sing and keep them alive as part of our shared heritage.