By Kent R. Kroeger (June 19, 2020)
“Freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,” Martin Luther King, Jr. replied when asked by a reporter during a march in Georgia why singing was so prominent. “They give the people new courage and a sense of unity.”
King considered songs the “soul of the (civil rights) movement.”
And as he prepared to attend a rally for Memphis black sanitation workers striking for equal pay — only minutes before he was assassinated — King would request the song Precious Lord, Take My Hand be played at that rally.
“Take My Hand, Precious Lord is universally considered the most popular, most beloved gospel song of all time,” writes Baylor University journalism professor Robert Darden. “It is simple, emotional, direct and profound.”
Every progressive movement from the 19th-century abolitionists (Oh Freedom), through the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 50s and 60s (Come by Here, Give Peace a Chance), to today’s ongoing George Floyd/Black Lives Matter marches (Tupac’s Changes) has put songs in the center of the message.
The songs become iconic —programmed into our source code — so subconsciously that we often know the melodies and lyrics without always knowing their origins or meaning.
But who recalls songs featured in politically conservative protests and rallies? Admittedly, the largest protest marches in U.S. history have been almost exclusively progressive in nature — but not all.
There have been massive conservative-led protest movements in U.S. history that included well-attended marches and rallies: anti-suffragism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pro-life movement, the 1978 anti-tax rallies in California, the 2009–10 Tea Party protests, Glenn Beck’s 2010 Restoring Honor rally at the Lincoln Memorial (I attended that one), and the more recent anti-lockdown protests in select state capital cities. And don’t forget every Memorial Day and Fourth of July parade across America which is arguably a conservative, pro-military march and rally.
Yet, we don’t have a strong sense of the songs sung at those marches and rallies. I do recall a particularly beautiful performance at the Restoring Honor rally by Jo Dee Messina of Heaven Was Needing A Hero, but beyond that song and the ubiquitous presence Amazing Grace, I don’t remember the music from that day.
And the more I contemplate conservative protest songs and anthems, the more I realize the effort is fruitless. There are no conservative protest anthems because, throughout American history, the conservatives have almost always been in control — certainly economic conservatives. Why would you protest if you are in charge? You don’t. To this day, the two major parties are controlled by these economic conservatives and if you’ve ever known an economic conservative (pretty much my entire family), most aren’t into meaningful sacrifices for the dispossessed in our society. If, however, you require superficial virtue-signalling with no significant policy consequences, they can spin you at light-speed.
The rallying songs for conservatives are not going to be heard in million-person marches. Instead, they are heard on the radio, on TV, and during Fourth of July parades. They are songs that either celebrate the status quo or bemoan the encroachment of progressives ideas into their daily lives.
I am not putting down conservatives here. I am one. To the contrary, I seek to highlight some of the great music conservatives almost universally embrace, even if they don’t need a protest march to group-sing them.
Therefore, here is my list of the Top 10 conservative anthems…
Number 10: Battle Hymn of the Republic
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, is the first line in this timeless masterpiece.
With the words of abolitionist Julia Ward Howe and the music of William Steffe, this song has been the anthem for movements on both the left and right. The music, simple and memorable, combined with its bible-inspired lyrics, this song is the rallying cry of the righteous. If you are uncertain about your cause’s virtue, this is not the song for you.
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
These lyrics don’t encourage mercy on the wicked. This is an aggressive, militaristic anthem that in contemporary society best aligns with conservative attitudes on war and peace.
Number 9: Father and Son
Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), not exactly a darling of American conservatives, wrote one of the most beautiful elegies to military service ever written. It still makes me cry.
The song was about a boy who wanted to join the (1917) Russian revolution against the wishes of his conservative father, who couldn’t understand why his son needed to risk his life just to seek his own destiny.
It is a timeless story many parents face when their children choose military service over other (safer) options.
For that reason, plus the fact the song is the poignant backdrop to the final movie scene in 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, this song represents one of conservative America’s most important anthems.
And its a wonderful song.
Number 8: God Bless America
This 1918 song has become more divisive with time, largely due to its overt religious tone. Written by one of America’s most iconic songwriters, Irving Berlin, God Bless America combines Christian sentimentality with American chauvinism like few others:
God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with the light from above
From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home
This song in particular drives atheists nuts and that’s why its number 8 on my list.
Number 7: Jesus, Take the Wheel
I can’t think of a song that gets a more positive reaction from my conservatives friends than this one. Written by Brett James, Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson, and recorded by Carrie Underwood, the song tells the story of a woman seeking help from Jesus after she survives a car crash.
This song is so basic to human experience, had it taken out the ‘Jesus’ part, it would have been embraced across all political ideologies.
But that would be like taking ‘Jesus’ out of the New Testament, which would turn it into a bad Netflix-produced drama series. What do you have left without the Son of God and eternal salvation?
Number 6: In America
If I asked my 50-years-old and older liberal friends (of which I have many) to name one band from their adolescent years that most offended their political instincts, one band would rise to the top: The Charlie Daniels Band.
Oh my God. That band is the anti-Christ of modern social liberalism. And their song — In America, written during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis — encapsulates everything liberals hate about conservatives: airtight unity and working-class patriotism.
Well the eagle’s been flyin’ slow
And the flag’s been flyin’ low
And a lotta people sayin’ that America’s
fixin’ to fall.
Well speakin’ just for me
And some people from Tennessee
We’ve got a thing or two to tell you all
This lady may have stumbled
But she ain’t never fell.
And if the Russians don’t believe that
They can all go straight to hell
We’re gonna put her feet back
On the path of righteousness and then
God bless America again.
Establishment Democrats sometimes fake their love for this song, but it was never written for them and they know it. Bill Clinton was never invited to this party.
This song is red-blooded, anti-liberal loathing in the key of E.
Number 5: Sweet Home Alabama
This is a song liberals often pretend to like, because liking it makes them feel open-minded and working class. For conservatives, its one of the few songs played at weddings they think they can actually dance to.
Along with being an extremely catchy song, the Lynyrd Skynrd hit was also the title of a forgettable movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Josh Lucas (who?).
But its historical importance is that it was a hit at a time when conservatives were on their heals over Watergate and the Vietnam War (the song peaked at #8 on the Billboard charts in the summer of 1974).
Along with questioning the importance of Watergate, the song’s second verse took direct aim at uber-progressive Neil Young’s song “Southern Man,” which was an uncloaked attack on southern racists (specifically those living in Alabama).
Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow
With its release in June 1974, Sweet Home Alabama immediately sparked the 70s version of a Twitter feud. Or, at least, people assumed there was a bitter row going on between Young and the band.
As is often the case, the reality was very different. Neil Young loved the song and openly admired Lynyrd Skynrd and its front man Ronnie Van Zant (who tragically died in an airplane crash, along with other band members, in 1977). Soon after Van Zant’s death, Young publicly demonstrated that respect by performing Sweet Home Alabama during a concert in November 1977.
Neil Young is many things, but he is no phony. And his respect for Sweet Home Alabama reflects an acknowledgment of the song’s anthem-level quality.
It’s a helluva song.
Number 4: Taxman
Now I go off the reservation a little bit. The Beatles are rarely described as representatives of a status quo, bourgeois ideology, but any rational interpretation of their most biographical lyrics demands at least consideration of that viewpoint.
George Harrison’s Taxman stands as Exhibit №1 in that argument, a song that was played more than once during the Tea Party rallies from 2009 to 2011 — its lyrics making any small-government libertarian squeal in delight:
Let me tell you how it will be
There’s one for you, nineteen for me
’Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman
Should five per cent appear too small
Be thankful I don’t take it all
’Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman
If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat
If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet
’Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman
Grover Norquist himself couldn’t have written a more direct anti-tax song.
And the song’s lyrics are as relevant today as they were in 1966.
Number 3: Revolution
Since I’m on The Beatles, I am putting John Lennon’s Revolution in the number three position.
“John Lennon?!”…He’s not even a conservative!
True, but throughout his life Lennon’s working class instincts repeatedly put him at odds with liberal activists and celebrities.
The song Revolution was written specifically by Lennon as an anti-revolution response to anti-Vietnam War groups trying to separate him from his Beatle-millions. Like Harrison, Lennon was not one to suffer self-righteous (often hypocritical) activists mooching off of him.
You say you want a revolution…
…But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out…
…You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We’re doing what we can
But if you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell is brother you have to wait
Don’t you know it’s gonna be
All right, all right, all right
Did William F. Buckley help Lennon with those lyrics? Seriously, those are not the words of some dewy-eyed peace activist. Lennon was a bourgeois pragmatist at his core. He may have complained about the strictness of his Aunt Mimi, but he didn’t stray that far from her working class, Liverpool politics.
Take Lennon’s reaction in 1971 to a question from a Dick Cavett Show audience member about over-population — which at the time was the crisis du jour among young liberals. Was Lennon worried about it? Here’s his response:
Lennon: I think it’s a bit of a joke the way people have made this over-population thing into kind of a myth. I don’t really believe it, you know. I think that whatever happens will balance itself out and work itself out. It’s all right for us living to say, “Well, there’s enough of us so we won’t have any more, don’t let anyone else live.” I don’t believe in that. I think we have enough food and money to feed everybody, and I think the natural balance, even though all people will be able to last longer. There’s enough room for us and some of us will go to the moon and live.
Cavett: You mean you think there’s enough for human existence?
Lennon: Yeah, I don’t believe in over-population. I think that’s kind of a myth the government has thrown out to keep your mind off Vietnam, Ireland and all the important subjects.
Cavett: Oh, I think you’re wrong about that.
Lennon: Oh, I don’t care. [Audience laughs.]
Of course, history proved Lennon correct and Cavett wrong.
Conservatives aren’t about to embrace Lennon as one of their own (and if Lennon were alive he wouldn’t accept the invitation) or start playing Revolution over the loudspeakers at the next Republican National Convention. But if they listened to the lyrics on Revolution, they’d realize its reactionary political sentiments are inescapable.
Number 2: This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag
I could fill this entire Top 10 list with Charlie Daniels Band songs. And while I put Daniels’ In America about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis in the number six slot, I easily could have justified it at number two.
Instead, I chose another event-inspired Daniels song — This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag, perhaps his most timely and poignant song, written immediately after the 9/11 attacks and released on a live album compilation in November 2011. And while it was only a minor hit (reaching #33 on the Billboard Country Chart), I heard at every Republican Party of Virginia rally (RPV) I attended after 9/11 and it is a standard crowd pleaser at Donald Trump rallies today.
This ain’t no rag, it’s a flag
And we don’t wear it on our heads
It’s a symbol of the land where the good guys live
Are you listening to what I said
You’re a coward and a fool
And you broke all of the rules
And you wounded our American pride
And now we’re coming with a gun
And we know you’re gonna run
But you can’t find no place to hide
We’re gonna hunt you down like a mad dog hound
Make you pay for the lives you stole
We’re all through talking and a messing around
And now it’s time to rock and roll
This song doesn’t have hidden messages. You don’t need biblical scholars to interpret its intent. Charlies Daniels, as he often does, just sings it like he sees it.
And with a self-titled band stretching back over 40 years, Charlie Daniels is an icon among conservatives of all ages.
And for good reason, he’s a true conservative.
I tried to avoid including song standards on this list — God Bless America and The Battle of the Hymn of the Republic the exceptions — as they generally attract listeners from all political perspectives. And no song fits that description better than John Newton’s Amazing Grace, its words written in 1772, with the music added in 1779. The song was prevalent throughout the 19-century abolitionist movement and the 20th-century civil rights movements, and has become so popular and secularized, its cultural appropriation ranges from The Simpsons to the Hare Krishnas.
Similarly, America the Beautiful, lyrics by Katharine Lee Bates and music by Samuel A. Ward, is an American music standard rivaling God Bless America in popularity. However, in contrast to Berlin’s song, America the Beautiful eschews heavy-handed American exceptionalism for a more gentle, introspective form of patriotism. Rather than bless us, God chooses to “shed his grace on thee” and “mend thine every flaw.” When I do hear patriotic songs at my Unitarian Church, its usually America the Beautiful.
Among more contemporary songs I considered for this list were Charlie Daniels’ Simple Man and Leonard Cohen’s metaphorical, King David-inspired Hallelujah — two songs I heard more than once at 2016 Trump rallies in Iowa. And not coincidentally, Daniels and Cohen, both of whom were comfortable incorporating religious allegory into their lyrics, occasionally recorded together and remained good friends until Cohen’s death in 2016.
Number 1: God Bless the USA
I’ve never done a Top 10 list where the number one pick was this easy. No song makes liberal heads explode faster than Lee Greenwood’s 1984 hit God Bless the USA. It pushes (or, rather, punches) all their buttons.
The song starts innocently enough…
If tomorrow all the things were gone
I worked for all my life
And I had to start again
With just my children and my wife
Who would argue with that? But then the song starts to roll — though still not overly provocative…
I thank my lucky stars
To be living here today
’Cause the flag still stands for freedom
And they can’t take that away
While I’m not sure who ‘they’ are — I’m gonna guess Greenwood was talking about the Russians and/or the Iranians — its the next verse where this Reagan-era song gets its well-earned reputation as a liberal repellent…
And I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I’d gladly stand up next to you
And defend Her still today
’Cause there ain’t no doubt
I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.
If I had to narrow it down to one line that drives liberals bonkers over this song, its that fourth line suggesting the U.S. military gave us our freedom. Its quibbling, I suppose, but it was our Founding Fathers who established our democracy (i.e., gave it to us) and our military has, most directly in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, defended us from threats to that freedom.
Yes, I would have wordsmithed Greenwood’s song a tad had he asked.
But I respect this song over all other conservative anthems, not for its attention to democratic theory, but because it so cleanly delineates liberals from conservatives and Democrats from Republicans. I’ve watched liberals try to enjoy this song at Fourth of July picnics and it generally doesn’t end well. The song just was not written for them.
Every red-white-and-blue-blooded conservative can recite its lyrics and sing its melody on demand and that is why it is my number one conservative anthem.
God Bless the U-S-A and the U.S. military for giving us our freedom.
[My wife just plunged her head into our kitchen wall.]
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