What Makes a Song Patriotic?

american flag

This time last year, we analyzed the top 10 patriotic speeches in American history to discover what made them distinctive. We found each speech to be highly emotional because of its patriotic content.

Social psychology helps to explain why patriotism is so connected with emotions. People often identify themselves with their country. For many of us, our country forms part of how we define ourselves. According to the essay Nationalism, Patriotism and Group Loyalty: A Social Psychological Perspective, published in The International Studies Association, “At the level of the nation, the group fulfills economic, sociocultural, and political needs, giving individuals a sense of security, a feeling of belonging, and prestige.”

We become sentimentally attached to our home nation, and we are motivated to help our country progress. We “gain a sense of identity and self-esteem through national identification.” Take the World Cup for example. People who normally don’t care about soccer crowd around the TV, cheering on their country, full of patriotic fervor

This year, we decided to see whether or not this finding of emotional patriotism would also apply to music. We analyzed the lyrics of 10 patriotic songs and compared them to lyrics from some of Billboard’s greatest hits of all time, as well as to a corpus of everyday language.

Patriotic Songs:

  1. America the Beautiful
  2. God Bless America
  3. God Bless the USA
  4. My Country ‘Tis of Thee
  5. National Anthem
  6. The Stars and Stripes Forever
  7. This is My Country
  8. This Land Is Your Land
  9. Yankee Doodle
  10. You’re a Grand Old Flag

Billboard Top Songs:

  1. The Who – My Generation
  2. The Rolling Stones – I can’t get no satisfaction
  3. The Clash – London Calling
  4. The Beatles – Yesterday
  5. The Beatles – Let it be
  6. The Beatles – Hey Jude
  7. Sam Cooke – A change is Gonna Come
  8. Ray Charles – What’d I say
  9. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
  10. Marvin Gaye – What’s Goin on
  11. John Lennon – Imagine
  12. Jimi Hendrix – Purple Haze
  13. Elvis Presley – Hound Dog
  14. Chuck Berry – Maybellene
  15. Chuck Berry – Johnny B Goode
  16. Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run
  17. Bob Dylan – Like a Rolling Stone
  18. Bob Dylan – Good Golly Miss Molly
  19. Beach Boys – Good Vibrations
  20. Aretha Franklin – RESPECT

As we suspected, the lyrics of patriotic songs evoke emotion. But we also found that they contain high levels of optimism.

Patriotic Songs

One of songs containing the highest levels of positive emotion was “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” With lyrics that proclaim love of the nation, it’s not hard to see why it scored so high:

My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!

My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills,
Like that above.

What was really interesting, however, was the variation in levels of optimism of the patriotic songs. While most of the songs were above the average of song lyrics in this data set, there were two outliers – Yankee Doodle and This Land is Your Land.

Song lyrics

It makes sense that Yankee Doodle wouldn’t have high levels of optimism. This song was originally written by the British to make fun of American troops. However, the Americans embraced the song, made it their own and it soon became the new republic’s unofficial national anthem.

It’s interesting to note that Woody Guthrie actually wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a reaction to what he felt was the unquestioning patriotism of “God Bless America.” While “This Land is Your Land” is not pessimistic, the lyrics don’t express positive emotion about the future. There is an implicit feeling of optimism in the song’s embrace of America’s diversity, but it is not explicitly stated:

This land is your land. This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

While the language itself is not explicitly optimistic, the imagery in the lyrics could be said to evoke optimism. Compare Guthrie’s lyrics to those of the other songs from our analysis, which directly reference the future in a positive way:

You’re a Grand Old Flag:
“You’re a grand old flag,
You’re a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave

America the Beautiful:
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

The Stars and Stripes Forever:
Hurrah for the flag of the free!
May it wave as our standard forever,
The gem of the land and the sea,
The banner of the right.
Let despots remember the day
When our fathers with mighty endeavor
Proclaimed as they marched to the fray
That by their might and by their right
It waves forever.

One thing we know for sure. The flags will be waving on the 4th of July, and for a day at least, optimism and patriotism will hold sway.