Songs

America the Beautiful

By: Katharine Lee Bates

This popular and eminently singable song was written by Katharine Lee Bates (1859–1929), an English professor at Wellesley College. The poem, originally called “Pikes Peak,” was inspired by the sights Bates had seen on a train ride to and from Colorado Springs, especially by the vista she beheld from the top of Pikes Peak. As she explained, “Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like ...

Anchors Aweigh

No Author

US Naval Academy bandmaster Charles A. Zimmerman (1861–1916) originally wrote this song (with lyrics by Midshipman Alfred Hart Miles, 1883–1956) as the school’s “fight song” in 1906. It was first played during the Army–Navy football game on December 1, 1906. (The Navy won 10–0.) The song’s lyrics have been revised three times, lastly by the Master Chief of the Navy John Hagen in 1997, to be more inclusive of the entire Navy. While the song has not been officially adopted by the Navy, it is commonly played at Naval events.

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Battle Hymn of the Republic

By: Julia Ward Howe

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written in 1861 as an abolitionist song by Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910), a prominent American abolitionist and social activist. While witnessing a review of Union troops in Washington, D.C., Howe heard the Union army marching song “John Brown’s Body” set to a tune written by William Steffe (1830–90). The stirring tune inspired her to write new lyrics: this poem came to her in the middle of the night and she scrawled the verses in the dark, using an old stump of a pen. It became a popular Union song during the rest ...

Chester

By: William Billings

William Billings (1746–1800), Boston-born composer and lyricist, was one of the foremost representatives of early American music. A tanner by trade, he was a close friend of renowned patriots, like Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. “Chester,” one of his most famous hymns, rivaled only “Yankee Doodle” in popularity; as with “Yankee Doodle,” “Chester” was often regarded as the anthem of the revolutionary era, or our first national anthem. Unlike our current national anthem, whose tune its author Francis Scott Key took from an English drinking song, both the words and tune of “Chester” are American and far more sober. The ...

Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean

No Author

First published in 1843, “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” was a popular patriotic song in the 20th century; its British counterpart, played to the same tune, is known as “Britannia, the Pride of the Ocean.” The exact origins and authorship of the song are disputed, but sometime around 1843, David T. Shaw, a singer in Philadelphia, penned some patriotic lines, which he gave to another musician, Thomas á Becket (1808–90), to put to music. Becket composed the tune, but may have also provided new lyrics to the song that Shaw then published, crediting Becket only as arranger. Becket soon ...

For an Autumn Festival

By: John Greenleaf Whittier

Thanksgiving was, to begin with, a festival of the harvest, with gratitude expressed for the bounty of nature. This harvest hymn was written in 1859 by Massachusetts Quaker poet and ardent abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–92) for exercises at the Congregational Church as part of the annual fair of the Amesbury and Salisbury Agricultural and Horticultural Society. Whittier, who grew up on a New England farm and had little formal education, was heavily influenced by his pious upbringing, earning him the moniker “America’s finest religious poet.”

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Freedom Songs

No Author

It would be difficult, not to say impossible, to understand the Civil Rights Movement without appreciating the importance of its music. Freedom Songs, as they came to be known, accompanied marches and sit-ins, rallies and boycotts, providing encouragement against fear, and communal feeling against isolation. Equally important, the words of the songs articulated the aspirations and goals of the Movement, in terms that united deep religious longings and secular American strivings. By giving voice to these aspirations in song, the music fused hearts and minds in strong and common purpose, inspiring singers and listeners alike, both black and white, with high hopes for ...

God Bless America

By: Irving Berlin

Composer and lyricist Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline (1888–1989), immigrated with his family to the United States in 1893 to escape the pogroms against the Jews in his native Russia. In 1918, while serving in the Army, Berlin wrote “God Bless America,” taking its title from the phrase his mother often used to indicate that “without America, her family would have had no place to go.” In 1938, around the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War I, the popular singer Kate Smith asked Berlin for a song. Concerned about the war clouds gathering in Europe, he tried writing ...

Hail, Columbia

By: Joseph Hopkinson

This song was composed by German-American composer and musician Philip Phile (c. 1734–93) for the first inauguration of George Washington, in 1789. Nine years later, Joseph Hopkinson (1770–1842), a Philadelphia lawyer and future Congressman and judge—as well as son of the patriot Francis Hopkinson, who signed the Declaration of Independence—penned words for the already famous musical composition. Approached by Gilbert Fox, a local actor and singer who wanted to sing the song at an upcoming concert, Hopkinson wrote the poem overnight and gave it to Fox the next day. The rendition was an immediate success, and President John Adams caught ...

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

No Author

This spirited song, a Movement favorite, is, like many others, a reworking of an old hymn, “Keep Your Hand on the Plow,” itself based on a verse from the Gospel of Luke: “No man having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God” (9:62). A new hymn with the present title, composed before World War I but of unknown authorship, is based instead on two verses from Philippians (3:17, 3:14) that urge people to “keep your eyes on those who live as we do,” and that speak about pressing ...

Liberty Tree

By: Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (1737–1809), English-born American author, political theorist, and revolutionary, is still best known for his 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, which made the case for declaring independence from Britain. In this ballad, written in 1775, Paine memorializes a famous 130-year-old elm tree that stood near Boston Common, under whose canopy defiant colonists rallied to discuss and demonstrate their discontent, and which was cut down by the British that same year. Thanks in no small part to Paine, the liberty tree lives on, figuratively and literally. “Liberty trees” were subsequently planted in hundreds of towns in every colony, liberty poles ...

Lift Every Voice and Sing

No Author

Although not technically a song of the Civil Rights Movement, we begin with this song to indicate that the fusion of religious and political aspirations had a long and honored place in American Negro music. Sometimes referred to as “The Negro National Hymn” or “The African American National Anthem,” it was written in 1899 as a poem by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), distinguished author, poet, educator, politician, and early civil rights activist, who was for many years a leader in the NAACP and a promoter of the Harlem Renaissance. The poem was set to music in 1900 by his brother ...

Marching Song of the First Arkansas Regiment

By: Lindley Hoffman Miller

After the Emancipation Proclamation, signed January 1, 1863, newly freed black slaves were urged to join the Union Army. Almost immediately, the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment (African Descent) was organized, and it saw action that year and the next in Mississippi and Louisiana. This marching song, sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” was written for this regiment by Lindley Hoffman Miller (1834–64), lawyer, orator-poet, son of a United States Senator, and Union officer who requested assignment to a colored unit, joining the First Arkansas Regiment in November 1863. Originally written in Negro dialect, we reproduce here a ...

My Country, ’Tis of Thee

By: Samuel Francis Smith

Until it was officially replaced by “The Star Spangled-Banner” in 1931, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” served as our de facto national anthem. It was written in 1831 by Samuel Francis Smith (1808–95), Baptist minister, journalist, and author. Though it is set to the music of Britain’s national anthem, Smith came to it by way of a German song. Also known as “America,” this song was first performed in public on July 4, 1831, at a children’s Independence Day celebration at Park Street Church in Boston.

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Ode to Columbia

By: Timothy Dwight IV

This song was composed in 1777 by Reverend Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), a Congregationalist minister, theologian, and eighth president of Yale University. Born into a prominent Massachusetts family, Dwight was a sixth-generation American and grandson of Jonathan Edwards. He came of age during the heady days of the American Revolution, and this song, popular with the soldiers of the Revolution, was written while he was a chaplain with the Revolutionary Army. Although it does not mention the name of Columbus, it attributes to the land named after him—and, thus, to his legacy—all the possible virtues and successes expected from the New ...

Oh, Freedom

No Author

This old Negro spiritual, written after the Civil War by an unknown author, expresses both the dignity of ex-slaves after the end of bondage and the yearning for release from the miseries of their lot after emancipation. Like many other Freedom Songs, “Oh, Freedom,” joins together worldly longings for freedom here and now and otherworldly hopes for redemption in the presence of the Lord. Very popular during the 1950s and 1960s, it was sung at the 1963 March on Washington by Joan Baez (b. 1941). But it is most notably associated with another song leader, the incomparable Odetta (born Odetta Holmes; 1930–2008).

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Onward, Christian Soldiers

No Author

The appropriation of traditional religious music for political purposes is amply demonstrated by the present selection, a 19th-century English hymn sung to rally the troops in the early mass mobilization of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955–56. It may seem odd that this militant Christian song should be embraced by protesters of a nonviolent and secular political movement. Reading the words carefully, can you reconcile this apparent contradiction? What, according to the hymn, are “Christian soldiers”? What is their battle, who their foe, and what is their goal? Can you see the Civil Rights Movement through the lens of ...

Over There

By: George M. Cohan

George M. Cohan (1878–1942) was a noted composer and lyricist, famous for such songs as “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” He started his musical career as a violinist and dancer at the age of eight, started touring with his family’s vaudeville musical act—“The Four Cohans”—at the age of twelve, and made his Broadway debut when he was fifteen. In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented Cohan with the Congressional Gold Medal for his contribution to American morale during the war years, the first time Congress had bestowed the award for the writing of songs. In ...

Ragged Old Flag

By: Johnny Cash

American country singer Johnny Cash (1932–2003) released this spoken-word tribute to the flag (and its title album) in 1974 as a response to the widespread disillusionment that followed the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. What is the mood of the poem? Why is the old flag ragged? What does the ragged old flag mean to the old man? Why does he take pride in it? Does the poem move you to do so too?

For a musical rendition, listen to Cash perform the song on PBS in 1993.

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Soldier’s Memorial Day

By: Mary B. C. Slade

This poem/song is the first of two selections that speak explicitly about decorating the graves of the warrior dead. It was written in 1870, just two years after, and in response to, General Logan’s order to establish an annual Decoration Day in honor of the memory of the fallen Union soldiers. Mary B. C. Slade (1826–82), poet and author of numerous Protestant hymns, wrote the words; composer and musician William Oscar Perkins (1831–1902) supplied the music. (Although we could not find a recording of the song, the sheet music is available here.)

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Tenting on the Old Camp-Ground

By: Walter Kittredge

This famous Civil War song was written in 1863, by which time the casualties and miseries of the protracted conflict had become well known throughout the land. It was composed by Walter Kittredge (1834–1905), a traveling singer and songwriter from New Hampshire, on the evening before he was to be inducted into the Union Army, for which he had been drafted. Failing his physical examination, Kittredge never experienced battle himself, but his poignant song captured the spirit of the men at war. He gave the song to the Hutchinson Family singing group, whose rendition of it made it immediately popular ...

The Army Goes Rolling Along

No Author

This song is based on the “Caisson Song” written by field artillery First Lieutenant Edmund L. Gruber (1879–1941) while stationed in the Philippines in March 1908. Its original lyrics described the routine activities of a horse-drawn artillery battery, and it quickly became popular in field artillery units. (A caisson is a two-wheeled cart designed to carry artillery ammunition.) Nine years later, the great composer and bandmaster John Philip Sousa (1854–1932) was asked to transform the song into a march. Sousa’s version proved a chart-topper, becoming the Army’s most popular melody. In 1956, the song (with revised lyrics) was adopted as ...

The Ballad of John Henry

No Author

On August 28, 1830, the driver of a horse-drawn carriage challenged the Tom Thumb, the first American-built steam locomotive, to a race on the newly formed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The locomotive was winning the race until a mechanical malfunction caused it to slow, allowing the horse-drawn car to pull ahead. Despite this initial setback, steam locomotives quickly became popular with railroad companies, and for the next 40 years, thousands of miles of railroad track would be laid across the country. Like the carriage driver who challenged the Tom Thumb, the folk hero John Henry, an ex-slave African American steel driver, was ...

The Corn Song

By: John Greenleaf Whittier

In this poem from 1850, John Greenleaf Whittier pays special homage to corn, the Native American crop. Have you every stopped to think about the glory that is corn? Why is it singled out for special praise? How does it differ from the apple, the orange, and the grape of the vine? To whom is thanks due for corn: Those who plowed the earth and chased away the robber crows? “The kindly earth”? “Our farmer girls”? Or God? Why might the blessing of corn have been the most fundamental reason for Thanksgiving? Might it still be so today, whether we know it ...

The Rebels

No Author

This drinking song of unknown origin proclaims the opposition of Tory loyalists to their fellow colonials who were in rebellion against the crown. Of what do the singers accuse “the Rebels”? In what tone and mood should one read the song’s recurring refrain, “with their hunting-shirts, and rifle-guns”? In general, what is the attitude of the song toward the colonials? How effective is the appeal to loyalty and law-abidingness, and the attack on rebellion? Could a similar song, in a similar spirit, have been written years later to mock and condemn the rebels in the Civil War? 

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The Star-Spangled Banner

By: Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key (1779–1843), Washington lawyer and amateur poet, was inspired to pen the verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by the unlikely success of American troops resisting the British attack on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry on September 13, 1814, two days after the burning of the capital. Nearly all American school-children are taught the words of Key’s first stanza, now our national anthem, and for the rest of their lives they hear it sung on patriotic holidays and at sporting events. Rarely, however, do we attend to the words. Many whose hearts are stirred by hearing the anthem sung probably could ...

The Stars and Stripes Forever

By: John Philip Sousa

This patriotic American march is widely considered the magnum opus of composer John Philip Sousa (1854–1932). Young Sousa grew up on military music. As a child, he enjoyed hearing the Civil War military bands that frequently played in Washington, DC as well as his father’s trombone in the US Marine Band. Sousa followed in his father’s footsteps, enlisting as an apprentice violinist and eventually becoming bandleader. Later he formed his own band, the Sousa Band, which toured for 39 years and entertained millions of people.

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The US Air Force

No Author

This song arose out of a public contest to find an official song for the Army Air Corps. In 1938, Bernarr A. Macfadden, publisher of Liberty magazine, offered a prize of $1,000 to the winning composer. The song had to be of simple “harmonic structure, within the limits of [an] untrained voice” and its beat in “march tempo of military pattern.” The committee reviewing the songs received 700 entries, none of which were satisfactory. The Chief of the Air Corps solicited inquiries from professional composers like Irving Berlin, but could not find a tune they liked. Just two days before ...

The Volunteer Boys

By: Henry Archer

Many of the songs sung during the Revolutionary War were originally drinking songs or toasts. This is true of this song (1780) attributed to Henry Archer (dates unknown), a Scotsman who came to America in 1778 and volunteered in the Continental Army, and of the next, a drinking song favored by Tories and British military men called “The Rebels.” As we do not have the music or a recording to teach us the melody, you will have to capture its rousing punch by declaiming it, preferably in a large voice.

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This Little Light of Mine

No Author

This gospel song, written circa 1920, by composer and teacher, Harry Dixon Loes (1895–1965), echoes verses from the New Testament that focus on light (for example,  Matthew 5:14–16 and Luke 11:33). In contrast to the last song, this one is an “I” song, rather than a “we” song. What is the significance, and what is effect of this personal emphasis, especially if we remember that the song was sung by masses of people singing together? What, exactly, is my “little light”? How does it shine? What is the difference between “letting it shine” and “making it shine”?

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We Are Coming, Father Abraham

By: James Sloan Gibbons

At the start of the Civil War, the entire United States Army numbered but 16,000 men. After the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months. Later that year, in response to mobilization by the Confederacy, Congress increased the call to 100,000 men under arms, each to serve for up to one year. But by 1862, with the war going badly for the Union and volunteering for service down, it became clear that the war would grind on and that more soldiers were needed. In July, President Lincoln issued a ...

We Shall Overcome

No Author

This stirring song, derived perhaps from the gospel song “I’ll Overcome Someday” composed in 1901 by Reverend Charles Albert Tindley (1851–1933), became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Can you understand why? How are the different themes of the various verses—courage, togetherness, truth, the Lord, peace, unity, the whole wide world, community, friendship, racial comity, and freedom—related to each other and to the song’s repeated refrain and title, “We Shall Overcome”? Are the song’s many goals truly harmonizable? Fully realizable? Does it matter if they are not?

For a musical rendition, watch Joan Baez perform “We Shall Overcome” in 1965.

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Yankee Doodle

No Author

The song “Yankee Doodle” is thought to have originated during the French and Indian War (1754–63), but it became particularly popular during the American Revolutionary War. It was first sung by British officers as a way of mocking the colonial “Yankees,” a name commonly used for all Americans. “Doodle,” from the German dudel or dödel, means “fool” or “simpleton;” the “cap”—called “macaroni”—referred to the wig, fashionable among the Yankees in the 1770s but regarded as foppish or effeminate by the British. However, after turning the British back at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, where they were vastly outnumbered, the ...

You’re a Grand Old Flag

By: George M. Cohan

The original lyrics for this George M. Cohan (1878–1942) favorite, written for his 1906 stage musical George Washington Jr., were inspired by a chance encounter Cohan had with a Civil War veteran who fought at Gettysburg. Driving on a country road, Cohan offered a ride to an old man who, once seated in the vehicle, began to reminisce about his war days. Cohan noticed the vet held a tattered flag. “It was all for this,” the veteran told Cohan. “She’s a grand old rag.” Cohan thought it was a terrific line, and made it the original title of his song. ...