10 songs to fire up your alternative Fourth of July soundtrack 

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Assuming you were raised in America, there’s a very good chance that Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is lodged somewhere deep in your auditory cortex, right alongside patriotic anthems like “America the Beautiful” and “Star-Spangled Banner.” But what’s typically left out — both from our memories and from most versions of the song — is this particular verse:

“As I went walking I saw a sign there / And on the sign it said No Trespassing / But on the other side it didn’t say nothing / That side was made for you and me.”

Whether deliberately abandoned or simply forgotten, those original lyrics shouldn’t be all that surprising, coming as they do from a protest singer who carved the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists” into his guitar. By planting images of inequality and intolerance in his ode to redwood forests and golden valleys, Guthrie makes Katharine Lee Bates’ purple mountain majesties and fruited plains look even more myopic than nature intended.

So, as Independence Day approaches, here are 10 songs that can, perhaps, play a similar role, if only as alternatives to the enduring xenophobia of the otherwise-perfect “Sweet Home Alabama” and the largely lamentable “These Colors Don’t Run.” After all, rallying around the flag is all well and good, but let’s try to remember that patriotism comes in more colors than red, white and blue.

“Winter in America,” Gil Scott-Heron

Public Enemy’s Chuck D once said that it was Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets who set the stage for everyone else, a fact widely accepted by those who’ve labeled him the godfather of hip-hop. While he’s best known for the wry polemics of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” his poetic masterpiece is this heartbreakingly beautiful ballad, which mourns a wayward America while hanging on to some small glimmer of hope.

Key lyric: “Lord knows it’s winter in America / And ain’t nobody fighting / Cause nobody knows what to save.”

“America,” West Side Story soundtrack

The biggest problem with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was that it didn’t have ethnic street gangs, interracial romance, or a score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. West Side Story solved all that, especially with this hilariously caustic number about the comparative pros and cons of life in Puerto Rico and New York City. Bernstein’s driving Latin cross-rhythms and widescreen Broadway bravado drives the point home perfectly.

Key lyric: “Life is all right in America / If you’re a white in America.”

“Make America Great Again,” Pussy Riot

click to enlarge Pussy Riot - CR JSTONE / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • CR JStone / Shutterstock.com
  • Pussy Riot
Now that they have their own American president, what do Russians really have to complain about? A whole lot, it turns out, especially in the case of this Moscow feminist-punk outfit whose members spent two years as Russian prisoners of conscience. Released a month before the election of Putin’s greatest admirer, this uncharacteristically restrained track combines a Brazilian samba vibe with a sparsely worded indictment of Washington’s war on women, blacks and immigrants.

Key lyric: “What do you want your world to look like / What do you want it to be? / Do you know that a wall has two sides / And nobody is free?”

“Livin’ in America,” Black 47 (featuring Mary Courtney)

Larry Kirwan and his fellow ex-pats came out of the gate swinging, in more ways than one, with this wryly romantic track off the self-titled debut album from a group that was revered as “New York’s bar band.” With its lilting Celtic-rock arrangement and sly lyrics, “Livin’ in America” is the kind of song that would do the Pogues proud, as Kirwan and guest singer Mary Courtney trade off first-person verses from the hilariously hung-over perspectives of two working-class Irish immigrants — one a construction-site laborer and the other a harried nanny — all with an undercurrent of class critique just below the raucously carousing surface.

Key lyric: “Is this what I was educated for / To wipe the ass of every baby in America?”

“The American Dream,” Haunted Windchimes

This early track from Pueblo’s own Haunted Windchimes was recorded back when they were still a harmony-driven trio. Band co-founder Inaiah Lujan wrote the song upon returning from a hitchhiking journey across the country, and, like many of the acoustic Americana group’s subsequent songs, it’s wide-eyed but far from unaware.

Key lyric: “I’ll give thanks to the cities / Who fed us and kept us clean / And to hell with all the rest of you / Destroying the American Dream.”

“Americano,” The Krayolas

San Antonio’s Krayolas have one foot squarely planted in British Invasion Beatles, the other in Sir Douglas Quintet-worshipping, Farfisa and accordion-laden Tex-Mex. “Americano” leans more in the latter direction, with undeniable hooks and wry lyrics about the American fascination with ethnic culture kept at a distance.

Key lyric: “Americano / Running out of time / Americano / I’ll meet you at the borderline.”

“An American Trilogy” Elvis Presley

Colonel Tom Parker, the manager who famously claimed he would make a million dollars if he could only find a white man who could sound like he’s black, got exactly what he wanted in the form of Elvis Presley. What he didn’t expect — no one did, really — is that Elvis would go full-on Vegas in his later years, favoring rhinestone-studded jumpsuits, crooning over bombastic arrangements that bordered on kitsch without quite crossing the line. (His movie musicals, on the other hand, were a different story.) “An American Trilogy” is a melodramatic medley that covers all the cross-cultural bases, incorporates a Union Army marching hymn (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”), a Confederate anthem (“Dixie”) and an African-American spiritual (“All My Trials”). It’s as over-the-top as anything he’d ever done, and in its own way, one of his best.

Key lyric: “Hush little baby, don’t you cry / You know your daddy’s bound to die.”

“Are You Glad to Be in America?” James Blood Ulmer

Truthfully, I’m not entirely sure what he’s on about in most of his lyrics, but Ulmer’s signature song is one of the most soulfully satisfying takes on experimental gutbucket blues you’re likely to hear, in this decade or any other.

Key lyric: “Tell me why, oh why, can’t I make this land my home?”

“America,” Simon & Garfunkel

click to enlarge Simon & Garfunkel
  • Simon & Garfunkel
Like Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” this haunting ballad from our country’s premier folk-rock duo takes us on a journey through a landscape that appears to promise more than it can deliver. As you might expect, Simon and Garfunkel come from a more melancholy perspective, viewing America through the windows of a Greyhound bus rather than the side of heartland highways. But any song that’s hopeful enough to be featured in a Bernie Sanders commercial (with the benefit of a little careful editing) works for me, as well.

Key lyric: “Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike / They’ve all come to look for America.”

“American Girl,” Tom Petty

Because it’s Tom Petty, it’s about an American girl, and its chorus is now stuck in your head.

Key lyric: Well, she was an American girl / Raised on promises.”


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