Another 4th of July spent in Washington, D.C. always makes me acutely aware of patriotic gestures, and musically there has never been a shortage of American patriotic music, from marches and anthems to labor-leaning tunes by some of the 20th century’s most influential composers.
What impresses me about what I will call “patriotic music” in general (as distinct from the larger Venn diagram of so-called “political music”) is the way that music intended for very public displays often touches upon the most private emotions related to duty, sacrifice, and mourning. Some patriotic music is indeed propagandistic, especially forms derived from marching and the militaristic outlook they imply. But perhaps more surprisingly, a great deal of patriotic music represents not a top-down imposition of political messaging but rather an assertion of popular sentiment and communal identity; it is one way for a people to define themselves through shared values. Perhaps in a country as large and diverse as the United States, a true sense of unity is rarely felt; in an age of unpopular wars, the population does not rally with a sense of shared sacrifice and moral rightness that characterized the WWII era and began to break down as the “Evil Empire” of the former Soviet Union fell apart.
There does appear to be one thing left capable of uniting Americans from all walks of life, as amply evidenced by audience reactions whenever I attend an Independence Day or Memorial Day event: the loss of American lives in foreign wars. As a nation, we’re nearly incapable of agreeing on anything beyond the tragedy of our sons and daughters returning home in body bags, and perhaps that is one of the reasons why so many body bags arrive at Dover every month.
Like many readers, I have a relative in the military, and I worry constantly about his well-being when he is away and worry constantly about his redeployment when he is back on base in the States. At a recent Independence Day concert in D.C., I saw plenty of individuals who had been even more closely touched by war, and it is one of those very few occasions where a large group of people join together in sincere, urgent outpouring of song. The patriotic anthems of earlier times don’t always speak so well to our current struggles, yet there is something exciting about the idea of music that binds together and heals a nation. Maybe it’s time for a new round of ceremonial music to replace the Sousa marches and Battle Hymns, music that speaks more directly to our own age?