Tomorrow is the 4th of July. It’s a day for reflection and thinking about the wildly improbable series of events that led to the creation of the United States. You may be here right now, getting excellent preparation for your semester abroad. Or you may be getting ready for the fall, at home, trying to figure out who you will be and what you will do when you travel to America. Either way, we think it is important to get ready. And so, on this day when Americans should reflect upon what it means to be an American, to look back on the sacrifices that people made for freedom, and how we’ve either taken advantage of it or sadly squandered it, we want to listen to some songs about America, those that embody the nation. These aren’t national anthems- we’ve already covered those– but rock songs, and blues songs- the two true American art forms. None of them glorify the country, some scold, some praise, some capture the feeling of freedom. All sing a different part of America. This isn’t a master class in American history. But listening to this music will give you an idea, even a subconscious one, of what the country in which you choose to study is all about. And these songs about America provide a great soundtrack for tomorrow’s fireworks.

songs about America

There are many songs about America that capture the story of the nation and its history.
Image source: Flickr user Shardayyy

“Strange Fruit”- Billie Holiday

Without a question, this is not just the most difficult song on this list, but maybe the most difficult song in American history. We include it because countries have their scars, their awful mistakes, the things they have done that make them, like a person, awake in the middle of the night with that awful stomach-turning gasp of regret. This is about the terrible period in American history during which African Americans were lynched by white supremacists, with full compliance by Southern judges and law enforcement. It was a long night of terror for black citizens, and one with which America is still reconciling. In Billie Holiday’s iconic version, all the pain, agony, and raw horror of institutional race-based violence drips on every tortured word. Holiday was a great American artist- broken, gifted, and imbued with the feeling that if she didn’t sing, she would die. This might be her triumph- a raw yelp on behalf of her people. Pulling no punches, the song forces us to look in the mirror.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”- The Band

As we noted above, much of the South was based entirely on racism. Objectively speaking, the South was wrong in the Civil War. And yet, most of the people who fought were Americans, beholden to the whims of their leaders. They fought with courage and even nobility, for a doomed and ultimately worthless cause. The Band, made up of mostly Canadians, and as progressive as anyone can be, understood somehow the mentality of the Southerner, fighting for what they thought was right. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a song of aching regret and loss, tinged with the looming fires of the victorious Northern Army. In one song, you can understand the 150-year-old wound a huge chunk of the nation feels, and, more importantly, you can understand their side. It’s poor farmers, caught up in something bigger, seeing their world collapse. In one gorgeous drum fill by the late, brilliant Levon Helm, the majesty, mystery, and the sadness of the South is revealed in a way that 1000 essays couldn’t begin to cover.

“Born in the USA”- Bruce Springsteen

This is certainly in the running for the most misunderstood songs about America of all time. Springsteen was reacting to what he thought was a particularly callous strand of abandonment in U.S. policy, especially toward Vietnam veterans. The song is a prolonged scream at institutional indifference masquerading as an anthemic feel-good ditty. The chorus is dripping bitterly with irony, with Bruce’s raspy choked cry of people living in a changing and shattered economy. But millions only listened to the chorus and assumed it was part and parcel of the Stallone/Reagan 80s. This was on both sides of the political spectrum- to this day, there are still liberals who think of Springsteen as a mindless jingoist. In a way, this makes the song a perfect encapsulation of politics: it is a fight over symbols, a strange relapse into numerology, while the actual people the song is about still suffer.

“American Girl”- Tom Petty

Not every song about America has to be so heavy-handed or fraught with symbolism. After all, the American ideal is about the road, freedom, and going out under open skies to forge in the smithy of your soul a unique destiny. It’s about letting down your hair, in both a literal and physical sense. That’s the beating heart of rock and roll, and few songs capture that feeling, the thrill of driving and beating your fist against the roof of the car while singing, more than Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” It’s a great story about leaving, making your own destiny, and finding yourself. It isn’t as feel-good as it sounds, but in the end, that sort of doesn’t matter. Not all journeys end in bliss. The point is to take that journey, to hit the road, and hope you have enough gas to hit the next town. That might be the American ideal, and this might be the ideal song for it.

“California Stars”- Wilco

This is a song written, but never recorded, by the great American folk singer Woody Guthrie. It was recorded here by Wilco, the alt-country voice of quiet longing. It bridges the generations between the two. At the end of the road, America ends in California. It doesn’t have to be literal. The country, from the first day, strove west. It was reaching for the frontier, and, in doing so, reaching for a reinterpretation and the chance at reinvention. It wanted the freedom that open skies could provide. California was a destination, but it also was an ideal- the ultimate American dream, where you could always start over, where you got that elusive second chance, in a state with pure air, where the ocean crashed on new rocks, and where the stars hung with an infinite distance. It was a place where you could dream, and where tomorrow was what you made it, but tonight was what you wanted. Fireworks could bloom through the night, dancing among the endless shining pinpricks, reminding you of the past, and beckoning you toward a limitless future.

 

The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.