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“We are Americans”: a Sampler of Songs about Love of Country

Native Americans in Western regalia carrying flags before a crowd.

Grand entry, official opening, of the Arlee Powwow, Montana, presenting the U.S. flag and Flathead Nation flag. Photo by Paula Johnson, 1979. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

There are a great many ways of expressing love of one’s country and some interesting examples of expressions of love of the United States, and the peoples that became part of the United States, can be found in American Folklife Center Collections. In addition to some familiar songs, this blog will introduce several songs that are not well known. I am describing these as expressions of love of country because whether these are patriotic songs in the conventional sense, songs about the love of the land, or songs about American ideals, the ethnographic recordings in the American Folklife Center Collections often are heartfelt songs with meaning for the singer. Some may be in the vernacular of the individual’s own culture, and so each singer brings a special meaning to their performance.

A delightful example is this rendition of “Yankee Doodle.” Armenian refugees came to the United States during the first World War as they escaped Turkey as the Ottoman Turks persecuted and killed Armenian citizens under cover of war. In 1939 ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded Joe Bedrosian playing the Zurna, a double-reed woodwind instrument, and captured this celebration of his adopted country. Cowell comments at the end:

The group Reverb sang at the Library of Congress in 2009 for the Baseball  Americana Symposium. The group brought their tradition of a capella African American Gospel harmony to their rendition of the song. It is another example of how familiar patriotic songs we share may be rendered in the many traditions of American music.

Dr. Brewster Higley wrote a poem called “My Home in the West” in about 1873 that became the lyrics of “Home on the Range.” Higley had a difficult time settling in a dugout home in Kansas territory, but wrote eloquently of his love of the plains. It is thought that a cowboy friend of his, Dan Kelly, wrote the music. His song became an American favorite, sometimes called the “Western National anthem,” and was adopted as the State song of Kansas. Alternate lyrics for other western states have been found in folk tradition. Often only one or two verses are sung, but as part of this performance for the Library of Congress in 2020, Dom Flemons sang all the verses (at about 9:15 minutes into the video). I encourage you to listen to the full concert of western and African American cowboy songs.

As the United States expanded its borders, it expanded the peoples within those borders, and with them came their own sensibilities of who they are.  So we have the Puerto Rican patriotic song  “La Tierruca,” with lyrics by Virgilio Dávila Cabrera, expressing a love of the land.  The version at the link is sung by Aurora Calderón and was collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell in California in 1939. (The title on the record at the link is misspelled as it relied on the collector’s notes.) Another example can be found in the Library of Congress National Jukebox. “Hawai’i Pono’i” became the Hawaiian National Anthem in 1874. The lyrics were written by King Kalākaua and music by his band leader, Henry Berger. It is now the state song of Hawai’i.

Francis Scott Key, held aboard a British ship during the Battle of Ft. McHenry, wrote a poem about seeing that the American flag still flew over the fort at the end of the conflict. As was true in that case, songs about love of country are often borne out of struggle.  When the second World War began, African Americans called to service hoped that their sacrifice for their country might help them to win better respect as citizens, a hope that was not a new one. This song, “We are Americans, Praise the Lord,” performed by Bertha Houston and recorded by James Willis, was meant to set a tone of hope and patriotism as a community prepared for war. (The spelling in the title reflects the collector’s notes and is not how we would prefer to spell it today.)

Indigenous Americans have a much higher rate of service in the military than other groups. A demonstration of pride in that service is on display at powwows as a color guard of veterans brings in the American flag and a flag of the host Indian nation (an example from the Arlee Powwow in Montana is at the top of this blog). This is the Omaha Flag song, performed during this ceremony.

Omaha Hethu’shka Society is made up of veterans and they performed songs and dances for the Library of Congress in 1985. The online presentation Omaha Music also includes some historic recordings of Hethu’shka Society songs. Learn more and listen to examples in my blog “Omaha Hethu’shka Society Songs and Dances,” in Folklife Today.

Indigenous Americans often cope with a complex sense of citizenship in the United States as they work to restore and retain their rights and lands, improve their situation, and fight discrimination while at the same time providing service and respect to the nation.

The Diné (Navajo) brother and sister duo Sihasin performed for the Library of Congress in 2020. Their concert is a mix of their own compositions and traditional songs demonstrating some of these complex feelings around the love of land, the importance of preserving and passing on culture, of reaching out to the wider world, and advocating for Indian rights. Their song “Child of Fire” (10 minutes into the video), written as a protest of commercial mining on Diné lands (now ended), expresses a love of the Diné nation and through that a love for the planet Earth. That love of local lands extending to a love of the planet is one that I think many Americans can relate to today.

Songs of protest often express American values. What could be more American than celebrating one’s right to freedom of expression?  Freedom is often a theme of African American Civil Rights songs, as can be seen in the concert by Reverb at the Library of Congress in 2007. The concert begins with the song “We’re Marching on to Freedom Land.” The second song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (at 9 minutes into the video), has been called the African American National Anthem. Also, don’t miss their tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen at 36 minutes.

 

To conclude this short tour of songs about love of country with a musical equivalent of a barrage of fireworks, we must visit some versions of a beloved song of this type: “This Land is Your Land,” written by Woody Guthrie in 1940. A 1944 recording of Guthrie singing the song is on the National Recording Registry (2002), added the inaugural year of the Registry. The song is among those often proposed as an alternative to the National Anthem. It was written as a protest song. Guthrie did not like Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” and sought to write a song to call attention to the Americans he met on the road during the Great Depression: such as the impoverished and the Dust Bowl migrants. The tune comes from an African American hymn, “When the World’s on Fire,” which Guthrie likely heard on a Gospel version recorded by the Carter Family. He initially called it “God Bless America For Me,” before changing to its current title. He first recorded it for Moses Asch in 1944, a version rediscovered by Jeff Place, an archivist at the  Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, in 1977.  This is the version in the National Recording Registry  (learn more about the song in the links in the resources at the end).

The song had a long history of use in the Folk Revival and still turns up on song sheets from the 1950s.  The Bess Lomax Hawes Collection includes a song sheet with a three verses of “This Land is Your Land” and the lyrics of another Guthrie song expressing a love of the land and concern for migrant workers, “Pastures of Plenty.”

The popularity of the song shows in performances by groups at the Library of Congress, especially as, in recent years, we have encouraged performers to sing something from our American Folklife Center archival collections. We have three variations (so far), all in English and Spanish. The urge to translate the song into Spanish seems a natural one, as Guthrie advocated for better treatment of Mexican and Hispanic American migrant workers.

The first example is by Sones de México Ensemble  performing at the Library of Congress in 2015. Their version of the song, “Esta Tierra Es Tuya,” begins at about 55:30 minutes into the video. It begins with the Spanish lyrics and ends with the English lyrics, so you can sing along in Spanish, or English, or both. Elena Lacayo says that she heard the Sones de México version and decided to do a version of her own. Her group Elena & Los Fulanos performed the arrangement for the Archive Challenge Sampler 2018 and it is introduced at about 1:30:00. This version switches back and forth between English and Spanish on the chorus. Of the three versions, this one is my personal favorite, but they are all great, so listen to them all and pick your own favorite! Finally, below is a player for an exuberant Archive Challenge version of “This Land is Your Land,” performed at the 2017 Folk Alliance Conference for the Library of Congress by Las Cafeteras in  Spanish and English with improvisations. If you are looking for a version you can dance to, this is the one you want! I think Woody would be delighted at all this continued enthusiasim for his song.

 

 

Resources

“Home on the Range.” Article in The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.

Spitzer, Nick. “The Story Of Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land.'” NPR, 2012.

“The Star Spangled Banner.” Article in The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.

“This Land is Your Land — Woody Guthrie (1944)” (PDF) Library of Congress.

Winick, Stephen.  “ROOTS IN THE ARCHIVE: ‘This Land’ and Sea Shanties on the World Stage.No Depression, 2021.

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