In recognition of our upcoming Independence Day, Marilyn Zoidis – our director of historical resources – compiled a selection of patriotic music from our collections to share with you; you might be surprised to learn how far back this sentiment runs!
Patriotic music has an early history for the United States – even before we were a nation, as we were still fighting for our independence from Great Britain.
As we move through time, one of the things you’ll notice is that there tends to be a resurgence of patriotism during wars, so oftentimes the songs reflect the conflicts of the period. One of the most famous war songs is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was written by Francis Scott Key during the war of 1812 and became our national anthem.
Through the years, the music is really a way for Americans to understand their identity as Americans. The songs convey both themes of American citizenship and ideals of the nation.
There is a real proliferation of music during the Civil War, when it was a time to celebrate the cause and express devotion to the nation and heartfelt feelings about the troops. The troops themselves would sing songs around the campfire and march to patriotic music, and people at home would sing them as a way to comfort themselves and remember the ideals for which the troops were fighting. (To learn even more about this era, be sure to see the Discovering the Civil War exhibition inside Henry Ford Museum, on display now through September 5.)
Some of the sheet music from that period is particularly stunning; the document may be fragile, but the sentiment of this piece is crystal clear.
The American flag was one of the preeminent symbols of the American Civil War; it was really the time when the flag took on a prominence that it had not previously had. As you look through our collection, you can really see the presence of the American flag and other symbols of the nation.
Oftentimes, music would also symbolize specific battles or events – sometimes detailed in vivid color, elaborate illustrations and plenty of iconography, like this example.
Speaking of iconography, there are references to Uncle Sam very early on as well. Uncle Sam is a figure that changes quite a bit over time; he starts off as a pretty scrawny-looking version and becomes much more masculine and forceful as America’s military role and importance changes, as does the representation of the American eagle.
Some songs are more explicitly military-focused, while others are more subtle; patriotic music covered a range of emotions of the population of the time – music really is a good example of the range of sentiments at any time in a country’s history.
The mixing of religion and patriotism really began during the Civil War as well, with songs like “God Save the Flag of Our Native Land” serving as prime examples of this.
“Dixie for the Union” is an interesting example of patriotic music; Dixie of course was one of the more popular songs of the South, so even as you look at the words of this song, it expresses love of one’s country but also feelings of animosity toward the enemy. Some of the language of these documents really explained the tensions felt in our society and the country at the time, as well as some of the sad points in our nation’s history.
After the Civil War, this feeling of patriotism really flourishes, and there is a sense of coming together in many ways and expressing this through patriotic symbolism – it’s when the “Pledge of Allegiance” begins and other manifestations of love of country.
Something else that flourishes at this time is band music – and of course, John Philip Sousa is the king of marches, especially this piece: “The Stars and Stripes Forever!”
People would gather for community concerts, often held at the village green or other center of town; grandstands or bandstands would be set up for local community bands to perform, which was another outgrowth of the Civil War – coronet bands were especially popular during this time. This way of Americans coming together was something that continued during the Fourth of July and other national celebrations – and it’s something that we even continue today at The Henry Ford, through events like Salute to America in Greenfield Village!
This piece is from World War I and is a strong example of the two sides of productivity in the United States during times of conflict: production of arms for war and industrial America.
Of course, World War I was a conflict that America didn’t enter right away, but there was the sentiment that we should be prepared for it – so the title of this, “You’d Better Raise Your Boy to be a Soldier,” showed that even if war wasn’t imminent, it’s something that is always with us and that you could be called upon at any time to help defend our country. The color choice of this piece is also interesting – it’s very much of the period, and not the traditional red-white-and-blue color scheme of most patriotic pieces.
Heading into World War II, themes like this harkens back to the fife-and-drum of the Revolutionary War and the modern tanks of the era, showing a real juxtaposition of the iconography and messages from an earlier time still resonate and carry through various wars.
Musical pieces such as “Soldier Boy” combine the military theme with a more personal element to the war, showing the military men in their various uniforms. Another interesting element to this piece is the personal inscription near the bottom, from the composer to Henry Ford (“Mr. Ford”)!
Many Hollywood stars and very famous composers, including Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin (who wrote many patriotic songs), also did their part to help lend a bit of star power to the war effort through music, canteens and USO shows – it was a way for them to express their patriotism, if not through direct military efforts but to show their support through their talent and support from the homefront.
These songs really capture a range of patriotic ideas, from the need to support the troops and the ideas for which America stands to even isolationism – this broad range provides a wide lens into what Americans were thinking and feeling at various times in our history. We see this even in recent times, from forms of protest songs during the Vietnam War to a resurgence of patriotic songs after September 11, 2011.
Patriotic music has been a part of our celebrations, our tragedies and who we are as Americans even before we were considered a nation; I hope you’ll take the time to explore these collections at the Benson Ford Research Center and learn even more for yourself!
What is your favorite patriotic song?