Misunderstood Song Lyrics and the Dangers of Willfully Ignorant Patriotism
As President Trump lay in Walter Reed Medical center being treated for COVID-19, a troupe of his doting supporters gathered outside of the hospital waving flags and blasting music. One of the songs that they had chosen was “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen, which has been misunderstood by the right for generations. The song, released in 1984, was inspired by Vietnam Veteran Ron Kovic’s memoir Born on the Fourth of July, which tells the story of a Vietnam veteran who, like Kovic, feels abandoned by his country. Anyone who reads the lyrics—and goes past the title of the song—would understand the anti-American and anti-war sentiments of the anthem. Despite the fact that it is nowhere near patriotic, it has been used by a number of far-right politicians for that perceived function. Springsteen famously rejected President Ronald Reagan’s request to use the song at a campaign rally, and publicly condemned Republicans Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan for using the song at events without his consent.
While “Born in the USA,” might be one of the most famous anti-American songs to be transformed into a patriotic anthem, it is nowhere near the first. After hearing “God Bless America” on the radio non-stop in the late 1930’s, folk singer Woody Guthrie became annoyed with the tune. According to NPR’s All Things Considered, while Guthrie believed that America was a visually beautiful nation, he also understood that it had many systemic inequities. For instance, while he had seen the beautiful landscapes of the American West, he had also seen refugees of the Dust Bowl fighting for their lives, with the government doing little to help them. Irritated, he sat down and wrote a song which he titled “God Blessed America” (with the word “bless” now in the past tense). For five years, he forgot about the song, until, in 1944, he decided to transform it into the folk classic, “This Land is Your Land.”
Originally, the song contained critiques of private property and income inequality:
As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said “Private Property.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
These more radical lines have been slowly eroded away. What was once a harsh critique of America is now seen as somewhat of an alternative national anthem. Guthrie himself censored his work by omitting the above verses when he initially recorded the song in 1944. Like many folk singers of his time, Guthrie changed the lyrics of his songs from performance to performance, and he has been recorded singing both the “Private Property” verse and the verse about the relief office. When asked by NPR about why her father may have left these lyrics out of many of his recordings, Woody’s daughter, Nora, explained that it was likely due to the political climate of the time; "This is the early '50s,” she stated, “and McCarthy's out there, and it was considered dangerous in many ways to record this kind of material."
Over the years, the song has been further sanitized as it has been covered by numerous artists, including Bruce Springsteen, Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, and even Senator Bernie Sanders. None of these artists included the more “radical” verses in their popular covers and, because these verses were omitted from the original recording, they may have been unaware that the verses even existed in the first place. When these verses are omitted, all that remains is a song describing America as beautiful, the exact opposite of what Guthrie sought to achieve with the song, as a rebuke to that rosy conception of this country.
Although the lyrics of “This Land is Your Land” are nearly universally misunderstood across party lines, the GOP are—more often than not—the ones co-opting anti-American (or even entirely non-political) songs to become seemingly patriotic Republican anthems. “American Pie” by Don McClean—another example of this long trend of misunderstanding—is about “The Day the Music Died,” where three musical legends died in a plane crash. Despite being a song lyrically devoid of patriotism, it is often played at Republican rallies, as the chorus sounds relatively cheerful and mentions America. One of the most recent incidents of conservatives misunderstanding the lyrics of a song occurred on TikTok earlier this year, when conservative creators began using the song “Red Kingdom” by Tech N9ne. It is as if they heard the word “Red,” and assumed that the song was written for them. In reality, the song is simply about a football team, the Kansas City Chiefs.
In my opinion, the co-opting of protest songs and non-political tunes as patriotic anthems is part of a much larger problem, one of excessive nationalism and false equivalencies. Bruce Springsteen once stated, “[The Reagan campaign's use of Born in the U.S.A'] is when the Republicans first mastered the art of co-opting the art of anything and everything that seemed fundamentally American.” Republicans will use any and all supposedly patriotic imagery—even if they have to co-opt something with an entirely different message—to portray themselves as the “pro-America” party. Even something so generic as the American flag has been so corrupted by the nationalistic right that I assume anyone flying it is a Republican.
The way in which conservatives have made being Republican synonymous with being American has created this paradox where anything relatively left-wing is perceived as un-American. They have also created a world where you cannot claim an identity as an American without also claiming the identity of a patriot. This false notion has long enabled the political establishment to write off leftists and leftist organizations as threats to America. Throughout history, many left-wing movements in the United States have been led by people of color, and the idea that being on the left makes someone un-American has often led to the portrayal of BIPOC and BIPOC movements (like Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement) as being un-American and fundamentally dangerous.*
When you look at the original lyrics of “This Land is Your Land,” Guthrie’s message is astoundingly clear: it is perfectly fine to acknowledge the good parts of your country, however, you must also acknowledge its faults. We must call out such willfully ignorant patriotism, whether it be the Republican party claiming American symbolism as Republican symbolism, or their misusing of songs that are antithetical to the “Pro-America” message that they attempt to portray. Our country is not perfect and we cannot allow the right to portray it as such.
*This information is from a lecture. Message the author at email@example.com for more information.