The United States of America will celebrate its 238th birthday this Fourth of July, and many Americans will spend the day firing up their grills, drinking beer, and blowing things up. Unlike its more somber brother Memorial Day, the Fourth of July is meant to be a day to celebrate and have a good time.
One of the elements needed for a “good time” is a great soundtrack. Many of us will turn to patriotic songs like, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” or anything in the Toby Keith catalog. But what about those of us who like our patriotic songs to be slightly less patriotic? Here are 10 songs (plus a bonus track) that will keep the spirit of the Fourth of July (and summer) alive without feeling like you just insulted half the country.
Oddly enough this song about traveling across North America was originally written by Australian country singer Geoff Mack with places in Australia like Murwillumbah and Wanganella mentioned instead of Kalamazoo and Oskaloosa. Canadian Hank Snow adapted Mack’s song for North America which means I have started with a very un-American song for our list.
Keeping with my tradition of non-American songs comes this track from the English Celtic group The Pogues. This song written by guitarist Phil Chevron details the struggles of Irish immigrants trying to make a better life for themselves by traveling to America. The final verse references the Immigration and Naturalization Reform Act of 1986 (the song was written in 1988), and the new struggles immigrants face in hoping to win the “lottery,” a.k.a. a green card.
On the flipside of songs by Greenwood and Keith is this song written by Little Steven Van Zandt which suggests that you can also be a patriot by questioning your country. Van Zandt may be better known as the guitarist for the E Street Band, or as Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, but he released three albums in the 1980s that were very critical of America’s domestic and foreign policies at the time.
Steve Goodman wrote this song in 1971 about a train called the City of New Orleans, and its route between Chicago and New Orleans. Willie Nelson recorded this version for an album of the same name in 1984 and Goodman won a posthumous Grammy for Best Country Song in 1985. (He died of leukemia in 1984 at age 36.)
This cover of the Schoolhouse Rock! song was released on the Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks compliation album in 1996 which also featured tracks from Ween, Blind Melon and other popular alternative acts of the late 1990s like The Folk Implosion and Man or Astro-Man? This might be the easiest selection on this list because it references the Boston Tea Party and taxation without representation.
This odd spoken-word track comes from Alice Cooper‘s last album before he finally decided to face the alcoholism that was killing him and destroying his marriage. “I Love America” is a borderline parody song about the things that Cooper loves about America, including “that mountain with those four big heads,” “chicken that’s Kentucky fried,” and “the Tigers, but I hate the Mets.”
Any fan of Rocky IV will recognize this James Brown track as Apollo Creed’s (Carl Weathers) entrance music to his final bout against the Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Brown released it on his next album Gravity in 1985, and it was the last top 40 of Brown’s career.
This Motown classic was written as a party song (and for most of us, that’s how we know it). But with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War both gaining momentum when the song was released in 1964, it took on a different meaning for many Americans struggling for equal rights and opposed to a war in southeast Asia. Mark Kurlansky, writer of Ready for a Brand New Beat, said in an interview, “It’s a song that inspires you. It makes you feel like doing something.”
Recorded in 1959, this little ditty to the everyday diversions that many Americans take for granted — drive-ins, cheeseburgers, and jukeboxes — was written by Chuck Berry after a trip to Australia. The song reached its largest audience in 1978 when Linda Ronstadt had a hit with a version recorded for her Living in the USA album.
My last pick is another tune by non-Americans, but at least this one was written by American rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran. Cochran died after a car accident at the age of 21 in 1961, and he only recorded one album during his life, but his influence can be heard in bands from The Beatles to The White Stripes. “Summertime Blues” was regularly a part of The Who’s setlist until 1976, and this version from their Live at Leeds album was a minor hit for the band in the States.
As you can see, your Fourth of July party playlist can include a wide variety of songs that can be patriotic in ways that Bill O’Reilly would probably not consider patriotic. So when you’re grilling your burgers and drinking your beer just remember that you don’t need Madison Rising, “America’s most patriotic band,” blasting from your speakers when Night Ranger will work just fine:
Have a safe and happy Fourth of July!
Obviously, this list could be much larger, and I listened to many possible songs before settling on these picks. If you want to listen to some of the other songs I considered I have compiled a playlist: