Patriotic Folk Songs

History of songs about America

Here's a look at the background of some of the most popular and memorable patriotic American folk songs.

"America the Beautiful"

American Flag
American Flag. photo: Getty Images

"America the Beautiful" (lyrics and guitar tab)—often called the national hymn of the United States—was adapted from a poem by a Wellsely College English professor named Katharine Lee Bates, written in 1893. She wrote the poem on a long trip she took to Colorado, about the beauty of the country through which she traveled. As the story has it, she thought up the poem while visiting Pike's Peak, and wrote it down as soon as she returned to her hotel. Now, there is a plaque atop the mountain commemorating Bates and her poem's composition.

"The Star Spangled Banner"

It is a tradition in American folk music to borrow the melodies of already popular songs and write new lyrics for them. So it is no surprise that Francis Scott Key's poem, "The Star-Spangled Banner" (c. 1814), was sung to the tune of an already popular English drinking song. The source of the melody—a song called "To Anacreon in Heaven"—was already popular in the States, although the lyrics had been changed several times.

Like many of the songs that have become characteristic of American patriotism, the origins of "Yankee Doodle" lie in old English folk music. In this case, kind of humorously, the song emerged before the American Revolution as a vehicle for the British to mock American soldiers. Yankee, of course, began as a negative term making fun of Americans, although the exact origins of the word are debatable. "Doodle" was a derogatory term that meant "fool" or "simpleton." More »

"This Land is Your Land"

As legend has it, Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land" in response to the hugely popular Irving Berlin song, "God Bless America." He was so tired of hearing the song on the radio and the blatant jingoism it promoted. Guthrie had seen much of America by this time, had experienced the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s and the racism and classism that followed emigrant workers and the blue collar working boys around, as they searched for work during the Great Depression.