By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Bellamy’s invocation of American patriotism on behalf of social justice is part of a hidden tradition. Consider the lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Emma Lazarus was a poet of considerable reputation in her day, who was a strong supporter of Henry George and his “socialistic” single-tax program, and a friend of William Morris, a leading British socialist. Her welcome to the “wretched refuse” of the earth, written in 1883, was an effort to project an inclusive and egalitarian definition of the American Dream.
And there was Katharine Lee Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College. Bates was an accomplished and published poet, whose book America the Beautiful and Other Poems includes a sequence of poems expressing outrage at U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. A member of progressive-reform circles in the Boston area, concerned about labor rights, urban slums and women’s suffrage, an ardent feminist, for decades she lived with and loved her Wellesley colleague Katharine Coman, an economist and social activist.
“America the Beautiful,” written in 1893, not only speaks to the beauty of the American continent but also reflects her view that U.S. imperialism undermines the nation’s core values of freedom and liberty. The poem’s final words — “and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea” — are an appeal for social justice rather than the pursuit of wealth.
In the Depression years and during World War II, the fusion of populist, egalitarian and anti-racist values with patriotic expression reached full flower. Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Manand A Lincoln Portraitare now patriotic musical standards, regularly performed at major civic events, written by a member of a radical composers’ collective.
Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again,” written in 1936, contrasted the nation’s promise with its mistreatment of his fellow African-Americans, the poor, Native Americans, workers, farmers and immigrants:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
In 1939, composer Earl Robinson teamed with lyricist John La Touche to write Ballad for Americans, which was performed on the CBS radio network by Paul Robeson, accompanied by chorus and orchestra. This 11-minute cantata provided a musical review of American history, depicted as a struggle between the “nobody who’s everybody” and an elite that fails to understand the real, democratic essence of America.
Robeson, at the time one of the best-known performers on the world stage, became, through this work, a voice of America. Broadcasts and recordings of Ballad for Americans(by Bing Crosby as well as Robeson) were immensely popular. In the summer of 1940, it was performed at the national conventions of both the Republican and Communist parties. The work soon became a staple in school choral performances, but it was literally ripped out of many public school songbooks after Robinson and Robeson were identified with the radical left and blacklisted during the McCarthy period. Since then, however, Ballad for Americanshas been periodically revived, notably during the bicentennial celebration in 1976, when a number of pop and country singers performed it in concerts and on TV.
Many Americans consider Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land,” penned in 1940, to be our unofficial national anthem. Guthrie, a radical, was inspired to write the song as an answer to Irving Berlin’s popular “God Bless America,” which he thought failed to recognize that it was the “people” to whom America belonged. The words to “This Land Is Your Land” reflect Guthrie’s assumption that patriotism, support for the underdog, and class struggle were all of a piece. In this song, Guthrie celebrates America’s natural beauty and bounty, but criticizes the country for its failure to share its riches, reflected in the song’s last and least-known verse:
One bright sunny morning in the
shadow of the steeple
By the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry I stood there wondering
If this land was made for you and me.
Stimulated by the recent nostalgia for World War II, old recordings by left-wing performers of the 1940s Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers, Josh White, Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and Paul Robeson are, fortunately, undergoing a revival. This was material deliberately created to promote the war effort, expressing the passionate fervor of left-wing resistance to fascism. The best songs also express the conviction that the fight against fascism must encompass a struggle to end Jim Crow and achieve economic democracy at home. Indeed, President Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches during that period reflect many of the same themes and images. And if you add to these songs the scripts of numbers of Hollywood war movies and radio plays by some of America’s leading writers — some of whom were later blacklisted — it becomes clear that popular culture in support of that war was largely the creation of American leftists.
Even during the 1960s, American progressives continued to seek ways to fuse their love of country with their opposition to the government’s policies. The March on Washington in 1963 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted the words to “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” repeating the phrase “Let freedom ring” 11 times.
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