14 Award-Winning Songs that Tell the American Story

On the Fourth of July holiday, you’ll hear many patriotic
songs that have become anthems. Many have been around so long
it’s hard to imagine a neighborhood parade or fireworks display
without them. You’ll also hear songs that are, if not patriotic
in the traditional sense, politically charged.

Here are 14 songs that chronicle the American experience. All
have won major awards.

“The Stars and Stripes Forever,” Sousa’s Band
(1897)

John
Philip Sousa
wrote the rousing march, which found renewed
popularity in 1901. The instrumental piece was voted into the
Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and the National Recording Registry in
2002 (its inaugural year).

“You’re a Grand Old Flag,” Billy Murray
(1906)

This George M. Cohan song originated (under its original title
“The Grand Old Rag”) in the 1906 Broadway musical George
Washington, Jr. The song was first a hit that year for tenor Billy
Murray, one of the biggest stars of the era. Murray’s version was
voted into the National Recording Registry in 2003. Cohan’s song
received the towering song award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame
in 2002. Cohen’s many other patriotic classics include “Yankee
Doodle Boy,” also recorded by Murray, and “Over There,” a
World War I-era classic recorded by Nora Bayes.

“God Bless America,” Kate Smith (1939)

Kate
Smith
introduced Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” on
her popular radio show in November 1938. Her version of the stately
ballad peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Best Selling Retail Records
chart in 1940. It was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1982
and the National Recording Registry in 2002. Other artists who have
successfully covered the song include Bing Crosby,
Connie
Francis
and Celine Dion.

“My Country ‘Tis of Three,” Marian Anderson
(1939)

Marian
Anderson
chose this song to open her historic performance on
the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939. The
renowned contralto was originally slated to appear in Constitution
Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution wouldn’t allow
her to appear there before an integrated audience. First lady
Eleanor Roosevelt intervened and persuaded the secretary of the
interior to arrange this open-air concert, which attracted a crowd
of more than 75,000 and a national radio audience in the millions.
Anderson’s recording was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in
2009. Samuel French Smith wrote the lyrics in 1831.

“Ballad for Americans,” Paul Robeson
(1940)

The great bass singer/actor Paul Robeson
sang this patriotic cantata, which puts American history into a
10:42 opus. It shows that Hamilton: An American Musical was hardly
the first entertainment piece to tackle American history. The
piece, co-written by John La Touche and Earl Robinson, drew an
inclusive picture of America that was progressive for its time.
“Ballad for Americans,” originally titled “The Ballad for
Uncle Sam,” was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1980.

“The House I Live In,” Frank Sinatra
(1946)

Frank
Sinatra
released this song calling for tolerance in 1946. He
also starred in an accompanying 10-minute film short, which
received an honorary Academy Award in 1945. In the film, Sinatra,
then nearing 30, confronts a group of school-age bullies who are
ganging up on a boy because he’s Jewish. The song was voted into
the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. Lewis Allan and Earl Robinson (one
of the writers of “Ballad for Americans”) co-wrote the song,
which Sinatra kept in his repertoire for decades. He included it on
his 1965 compilation A Man and His Music, which won a Grammy for
album of the year.

“This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie
(1947)

Like John
Lennon
’s 1971 classic “Imagine,” Woody
Guthrie
’s song put progressive ideas across by wrapping them
in a gentle and soothing musical framework. The song gained wide
exposure in the folk boom of the early ’60s, with versions by
such artists as the Kingston
Trio
and Peter, Paul &
Mary
. Yet, surprisingly, the song has never been a major hit
single. The highest-charting version, by the New
Christy Minstrels
, reached No. 93 on the Billboard Hot 100 in
1962. Guthrie’s recording was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame
in 1989 and the National Recording Registry in 2002.

“We Shall Overcome,” Pete Seeger (1963)

This song, which Pete Seeger
helped adapt from a 1900 hymn, became the unofficial anthem of the
civil rights movement of the 1960s. It’s such a classic that
it’s hard to imagine that it has been a Hot 100 hit just once, in
1963, when Joan
Baez
’s version peaked at No. 90. Seeger’s version was
nominated for a 1963 Grammy for best folk recording. It didn’t
win, but it was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and the
National Recording Registry in 2006. The song paved the way for
such classics as Curtis
Mayfield
’s “People Get Ready” and Sam Cooke’s “A
Change Is Gonna Come.”

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” Jimi Hendrix
(1970)

Jimi
Hendrix
recorded this song at the 1969 Woodstock festival.
Hendrix used his guitar to approximate the chaotic sounds of war.
The recording was released on the triple-disk Woodstock soundtrack,
which topped the Billboard 200 for four weeks in 1970. It brought
Hendrix the only Grammy nomination of his career — best
contemporary instrumental performance. He didn’t win, but the
recording was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009. Francis Scott
Key
wrote the lyric in 1814. The song officially became our
national anthem in 1931.José
Feliciano
and Whitney
Houston
both reached the Hot 100 with memorable versions.

“American Pie,†Don McLean
(1971)        

Don
McLean
’s rollicking run through pop-culture history was so
popular in 1971-72 that many stations played the full-length
version, which ran 8:37. McLean’s single topped the Hot 100 for
four weeks. McLean was nominated for four 1972 Grammys, but lost
them all — a reflection of the inevitable fatigue that followed
the song’s ubiquity. But over time the song has gotten its due.
It was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002 and the National
Recording Registry in 2016. Madonna took the song
to No. 20 on the Hot 100 in 2000, when she recorded it for her
movie The Next Best Thing. Garth Brooks
included it on The Ultimate Collection in 2016.

“America the Beautiful,†Ray Charles
(1972)

Ray
Charles
’ achingly beautiful recording, now hailed as a
classic, was relegated to the B-side of his soulful cover of
the New
Seekers
’ 1970 pop hit “Look What They’ve Done to My
Song.†Charles’ version of that song reached No. 65 on the Hot
100. Charles’ recording of “America the Beautiful†was voted
into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005. Samuel A. Ward composed the
melody in 1883. Katharine Lee Bates added the lyrics 12 years
later.

“God Bless the USA,†Lee Greenwood
(1984)

Lee
Greenwood
’s modern-day patriotic classic won single and song
of the year at the Country Music Association Awards in 1984.
Greenwood’s song reached No. 7 on the Hot Country Singles chart
in 1984, but it didn’t make the Hot 100 until after 9/11, when a
newly recorded version reached No. 16. The American Idol finalists
took the song to No. 4 on the Hot 100 in 2003.

“Born in the U.S.A.,†Bruce Springsteen
(1984)

Bruce
Springsteen
’s rousing song seemed to be a flag-waver, but
actually had a more nuanced message. The song was released as the
third single from Springsteen’s blockbuster album of the same
name. It reached No. 9 on the Hot 100 and received a 1985 Grammy
nom for record of the year. It didn’t win, but the album was
voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2012.

“This Is America,†Childish Gambino
(2018)

Childish
Gambino
’s examination of the state of race and policing in
America won Grammys for record and song of the year and best music
video. It was only the third work in Grammy history to sweep all
three of those categories, following USA for
Africa
’s “We Are the World†and Adele’s “Rolling in
the Deep.†“This Is America,†which entered the Hot 100 at
No. 1, also won best rap/sung performance. Childish Gambino (Donald
Glover) co-wrote the song with Ludwig Göransson and Jeffery Lamar
Williams.

On the Fourth of July holiday, you’ll hear many patriotic
songs that have become anthems. Many have been around so long
it’s hard to imagine a neighborhood parade or fireworks display
without them. You’ll also hear songs that are, if not patriotic
in the traditional sense, politically charged.
Here are 14 songs that chronicle the American experience. All
have won major awards.
“The Stars and Stripes Forever,” Sousa’s Band
(1897)
John
Philip Sousa wrote the rousing march, which found renewed
popularity in 1901. The instrumental piece was voted into the
Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and the National Recording Registry in
2002 (its inaugural year).
“You’re a Grand Old Flag,” Billy Murray
(1906)
This George M. Cohan song originated (under its original title
“The Grand Old Rag”) in the 1906 Broadway musical George
Washington, Jr. The song was first a hit that year for tenor Billy
Murray, one of the biggest stars of the era. Murray’s version was
voted into the National Recording Registry in 2003. Cohan’s song
received the towering song award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame
in 2002. Cohen’s many other patriotic classics include “Yankee
Doodle Boy,” also recorded by Murray, and “Over There,” a
World War I-era classic recorded by Nora Bayes.

“God Bless America,” Kate Smith (1939)
Kate
Smith introduced Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” on
her popular radio show in November 1938. Her version of the stately
ballad peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Best Selling Retail Records
chart in 1940. It was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1982
and the National Recording Registry in 2002. Other artists who have
successfully covered the song include Bing Crosby,
Connie
Francis and Celine Dion.
“My Country ‘Tis of Three,” Marian Anderson
(1939)
Marian
Anderson chose this song to open her historic performance on
the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939. The
renowned contralto was originally slated to appear in Constitution
Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution wouldn’t allow
her to appear there before an integrated audience. First lady
Eleanor Roosevelt intervened and persuaded the secretary of the
interior to arrange this open-air concert, which attracted a crowd
of more than 75,000 and a national radio audience in the millions.
Anderson’s recording was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in
2009. Samuel French Smith wrote the lyrics in 1831.
“Ballad for Americans,” Paul Robeson
(1940)
The great bass singer/actor Paul Robeson
sang this patriotic cantata, which puts American history into a
10:42 opus. It shows that Hamilton: An American Musical was hardly
the first entertainment piece to tackle American history. The
piece, co-written by John La Touche and Earl Robinson, drew an
inclusive picture of America that was progressive for its time.
“Ballad for Americans,” originally titled “The Ballad for
Uncle Sam,” was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1980.

“The House I Live In,” Frank Sinatra
(1946)
Frank
Sinatra released this song calling for tolerance in 1946. He
also starred in an accompanying 10-minute film short, which
received an honorary Academy Award in 1945. In the film, Sinatra,
then nearing 30, confronts a group of school-age bullies who are
ganging up on a boy because he’s Jewish. The song was voted into
the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. Lewis Allan and Earl Robinson (one
of the writers of “Ballad for Americans”) co-wrote the song,
which Sinatra kept in his repertoire for decades. He included it on
his 1965 compilation A Man and His Music, which won a Grammy for
album of the year.
“This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie
(1947)
Like John
Lennon’s 1971 classic “Imagine,” Woody
Guthrie’s song put progressive ideas across by wrapping them
in a gentle and soothing musical framework. The song gained wide
exposure in the folk boom of the early ’60s, with versions by
such artists as the Kingston
Trio and Peter, Paul &
Mary. Yet, surprisingly, the song has never been a major hit
single. The highest-charting version, by the New
Christy Minstrels, reached No. 93 on the Billboard Hot 100 in
1962. Guthrie’s recording was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame
in 1989 and the National Recording Registry in 2002.
“We Shall Overcome,” Pete Seeger (1963)
This song, which Pete Seeger
helped adapt from a 1900 hymn, became the unofficial anthem of the
civil rights movement of the 1960s. It’s such a classic that
it’s hard to imagine that it has been a Hot 100 hit just once, in
1963, when Joan
Baez’s version peaked at No. 90. Seeger’s version was
nominated for a 1963 Grammy for best folk recording. It didn’t
win, but it was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and the
National Recording Registry in 2006. The song paved the way for
such classics as Curtis
Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and Sam Cooke’s “A
Change Is Gonna Come.”

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” Jimi Hendrix
(1970)
Jimi
Hendrix recorded this song at the 1969 Woodstock festival.
Hendrix used his guitar to approximate the chaotic sounds of war.
The recording was released on the triple-disk Woodstock soundtrack,
which topped the Billboard 200 for four weeks in 1970. It brought
Hendrix the only Grammy nomination of his career — best
contemporary instrumental performance. He didn’t win, but the
recording was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009. Francis Scott
Key wrote the lyric in 1814. The song officially became our
national anthem in 1931.José
Feliciano and Whitney
Houston both reached the Hot 100 with memorable versions.
“American Pie,†Don McLean
(1971)        
Don
McLean’s rollicking run through pop-culture history was so
popular in 1971-72 that many stations played the full-length
version, which ran 8:37. McLean’s single topped the Hot 100 for
four weeks. McLean was nominated for four 1972 Grammys, but lost
them all — a reflection of the inevitable fatigue that followed
the song’s ubiquity. But over time the song has gotten its due.
It was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002 and the National
Recording Registry in 2016. Madonna took the song
to No. 20 on the Hot 100 in 2000, when she recorded it for her
movie The Next Best Thing. Garth Brooks
included it on The Ultimate Collection in 2016.
“America the Beautiful,†Ray Charles
(1972)
Ray
Charles’ achingly beautiful recording, now hailed as a
classic, was relegated to the B-side of his soulful cover of
the New
Seekers’ 1970 pop hit “Look What They’ve Done to My
Song.†Charles’ version of that song reached No. 65 on the Hot
100. Charles’ recording of “America the Beautiful†was voted
into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005. Samuel A. Ward composed the
melody in 1883. Katharine Lee Bates added the lyrics 12 years
later.

“God Bless the USA,†Lee Greenwood
(1984)
Lee
Greenwood’s modern-day patriotic classic won single and song
of the year at the Country Music Association Awards in 1984.
Greenwood’s song reached No. 7 on the Hot Country Singles chart
in 1984, but it didn’t make the Hot 100 until after 9/11, when a
newly recorded version reached No. 16. The American Idol finalists
took the song to No. 4 on the Hot 100 in 2003.
“Born in the U.S.A.,†Bruce Springsteen
(1984)
Bruce
Springsteen’s rousing song seemed to be a flag-waver, but
actually had a more nuanced message. The song was released as the
third single from Springsteen’s blockbuster album of the same
name. It reached No. 9 on the Hot 100 and received a 1985 Grammy
nom for record of the year. It didn’t win, but the album was
voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2012.
“This Is America,†Childish Gambino
(2018)
Childish
Gambino’s examination of the state of race and policing in
America won Grammys for record and song of the year and best music
video. It was only the third work in Grammy history to sweep all
three of those categories, following USA for
Africa’s “We Are the World†and Adele’s “Rolling in
the Deep.†“This Is America,†which entered the Hot 100 at
No. 1, also won best rap/sung performance. Childish Gambino (Donald
Glover) co-wrote the song with Ludwig Göransson and Jeffery Lamar
Williams.

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