Once you’ve muddled through your cavalcade of Petty and Katy and Miley and the Boss, the offerings for Independence Day-themed songs can get intriguing fast. At least that’s what I discovered after seeking out the less-explored corners of YouTube for rarified offerings in a patriotic spirit.
Independence Day, 4th of July, 1940 Promotion
Brass, flags, fireworks, a quill pen signing the Declaration of Independence—no surprises there. But then:
Be happy … be glad we are living in the good old USA
Land of the free … home of fair play
That’s not how it goes! What enterprising wag took it upon himself to rewrite “The Star Spangled Banner,” one wonders? I guess with World War II under way, the powers that be wanted to emphasize America’s inherently just system.
Joe Byrd & the Field Hippies, “Mr. Fourth of July”
With its lo-fi sound, “Mr. Fourth of July” seems like something you’d hear at a turn-of-the-century hot-air balloon launch. It stands out on the lysergic minded 1969 LP American Metaphysical Circus, just as “When I’m Sixty-Four” did on on Sgt. Pepper. Byrd, born in 1937 in Louisville, was a complex character. He studied with La Monte Young, wrote arrangements for Phil Ochs, and pioneered performance art before embracing rock ’n’ roll in the late ’60s. At that point, he had already joined the Communist party, but Byrd retained what could be construed as a patriotic streak. His first band was called The United States of America, and he did an album called Yankee Transcendoodle.
Celeste & the Upbeats, "Fallin' (4th of July Block Party 2014)"
Search-engine randomness has its moments. I recently watched a Wanda Jackson video, so YouTube suggested I watch another one, which made me wonder if Wanda had ever sung about July 4th. I turned up a rather rip-snorting version of a Wanda Jackson song at a Fourth of July block party, and it is definitely good fun. I salute you, Celeste & the Upbeats.
The Beach Boys, "4th of July"
The Beach Boys would seem tailor-made to have a Fourth of July song, and they do, but it only became available years after it was written, long after the passing of its author, Dennis Wilson, best known for playing drums and being the band’s only real surfer. In the years after Brian Wilson became virtually incapacitated, the band lost its leader. Internecine battles became the norm. Brothers Dennis and Carl wanted to evolve musically and fully shed their nostalgic trappings; Mike Love and Al Jardine wanted to preserve the sunlit amber of 1964. It was due to this acrimony that Dennis Wilson’s quite gorgeous “4th of July,” aimed at President Nixon’s attempts to quash dissent, was nixed from 1971’s Surf’s Up. The song is stark and hymn-like. Carl sings a heavenly vocal, and the message is as powerful as the angel harmonies. The Sloop John B. had definitely set sail.
“Stars and Stripes Forever”
“Stars and Stripes Forever” is John Phillip Sousa’s most famous work. It’s the official national march of the U.S. and synonymous with Fourth of July fireworks. The song has lyrics, but one rarely hears them, even if iInnumerable renditions exist. One version of the song accompanies the climax of the Our Gang comedy The Lucky Corner. Spanky makes ingenious use of a barber’s scalp massager to exact revenge on an unscrupulous lemonade hawker and his obnoxious son, causing them to gyrate bizarrely to the strains of Sousa’s classic. The antics begin around 14:20, but if you tune in a bit earlier, you’ll see a master class in the “spit take.”
Dr. Chorizo, "Happy 4th of July Song"
If you couldn’t tell, offbeat songs about the holiday are what I’m going for here. This is a primo find, the kind of video truffle that deep searching rewards. Something about the deadpan delivery on lyrics like “We’ll go to a bad neighborhood/and set off fireworks I got from Wisconsin" works perfectly.
“A song about 4th of July, Marriott Hotel, America and Unity of Mankind”
You don’t have to be Yankee Doodle Dandy to dig the holiday. In this clip, an Iranian man gives an a cappella rendition of an original song that extolls the holiday in distinct Middle Eastern modalities. He mixes up 40 with Fourth and has an idiosyncratic cadence that’s almost Latka Gravas-like in its daintiness. My first response was to laugh, but I was totally won over by the end. He is totally sincere.
Inspirational line: “You haven’t seen freedom if you haven’t been here.”
"4th of July Cartoon Lesson," Home School House Rock
If we are getting a bit far afield here, the following is a useful primer in the ostensible reason we celebrate Independence Day. Why, even a kid could understand it.
Simon & Garfunkel, "American Tune"
Can we be serious for a minute? Of course we can. Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” seems to be the go-to song for fireworks displays, but “American Tune,” from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, is a deeper and profoundly darker evocation of the American experience. Year after year, the line “We come in the age’s most uncertain hours/and sing an American tune” always feels like the perfect, poignant summation of the state of the union. The original is an orchestrated, immaculately produced album track, but this live version from the Concert in Central Park in 1981 has the blissful vocals of Art Garfunkel and the excitement of the live crowd.
"America, The Beautiful" on trombone The trombone has a mournful sound that tugs at the heart. In this version of “America, the Beautiful” by a charmingly unprepossessing teenager, the long tones of the ’bone show off the resonance of the familiar melody. Even the imperfect notes feel right.