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Four For The Fourth: Songs For America

On the Fourth of July, we hoist American flags high, shoot off completely legal fireworks, and consume patriotic cupcakes. It's a birthday party and the whole country is invited.

That leaves the music. How many more times do you need to hear "Stars and Stripes Forever" played by a ramshackle high school marching band before you barrel headfirst into the bass drum? And does Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" really need the full laser show treatment? (The answer is yes, by the way.) America can do better!

Whether meditating on America's landscape, its freedoms or the things about our country that frustrate us, America is ripe for inspiration, as evidenced by the songs below.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Freedom Suite

As the 1950s became the '60s, the word "freedom" was perched on the lips of many a jazz musician. As innovators in form and technique, African American musicians grappled with what would come to be known as "free jazz"; as the Civil Rights Movement played out, many also came to understand freedom as something realized in a painfully torpid struggle throughout black history. You could read all that into Sonny Rollins' 1958 recording, The Freedom Suite. Rollins relied heavily on the myriad talents of Max Roach (drums) and Oscar Pettiford (bass) to abet a free-flowing, conversational style of improvising. But surely, in his saxophone heroism, Rollins was also channeling the sundry and complex emotions of oppression, sympathy and political protest. And, after the tape stopped rolling and the moment passed, America was bettered by the recording. --Patrick Jarenwattananon

Wasn't Born to Follow

Many events in 1969 changed how Americans viewed their country: Woodstock, the continuing Vietnam War, the Moon landing and the Chicago Seven trial, to name a few. And for the first time, mainstream America was viewing its counterculture on the big screen in films such as Easy Rider. In the midst of motorcycles, mutton chops and a lengthy acid trip, audiences saw a wild America, the one between Los Angeles and New Orleans. Suddenly, the American highway was the kind of place where you could get lost in the wonder and Easy Rider had its soundtrack. Penned by songwriting team Carole King and Gerry Goffin, the oh-so appropriately-titled "Wasn't Born to Follow" by The Byrds is an easy-going psychedelic-country song about aimless wandering and the choice to do so. --Lars Gotrich

Bamboula, danse des nègres for piano, Op. 2, D. 13 (RO 20)

New York City has often been called America's melting-pot. But in the first half of the 19th century, another U.S. city could easily have laid claim to that title. Walk down the narrow streets of New Orleans around 1830, and you could hear music with roots in Africa, the Caribbean, France, Spain and rural America, coming from French opera houses, military bands, banjo pickers, theatres and dance halls. New Orleans native Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a composer, a virtuoso pianist of the first rank and perhaps our country's first music multiculturalist. His "Bamboula," played here by Cecile Licad, is a fizzy mix of Afro-Caribbean rhythms with a pinch of Franz Liszt. --Tom Huizenga

Big Country

"The Big Country," Talking Heads' final track on More Songs About Buildings And Food, is a somewhat atypical song about America in that it seems to be both an ode and a criticism. Over country-infused pop melodies, singer David Byrne romantically opens the song by listing the baseball diamonds, factories and farms that he sees from a plane window while flying over middle America. But by the time the chorus rolls around, the tone shifts. As Byrne sings, "I say, I wouldn't live there if you paid me / I couldn't live like that, no siree!" it's unclear if the first person character is Byrne himself, or an unreliable narrator with a dismissive detachment. Byrne's lyrics have a way of evoking a nostalgic feeling for the simplicities of suburban and rural America, while commenting on that lifestyle at the same time. --Mike Katzif