American patriotic songs come in all shapes and sizes, from protest songs to choral ballads, some melodically unique, others sharing tunes with ditties across the Atlantic. But which are the best of them? Here are our choices.


1.Hail to the Chief

Adapted from an original Scottish Gaelic melody by the 18th century English composer James Sanderson, this is the US President's personal anthem, usually played by the United States Marine Band and other military ensembles. It originated in the 19th century and has mainly been used to accompany the President's appearances at public events. But it is also played at inauguration ceremonies, along with former Presidents' state funerals, after the coffin is removed from the hearse. The lyrics, which are rarely sung, are by the early 20th century American lyricist Albert Gamse.

2. The Stars and Stripes Forever

This march, written by John Philip Sousa in 1896, is well-known as the official national march of the United States of America. Not everybody knows, however, that it was once called the 'Disaster March'. In the early 20th century, when theatres and circuses tended to have house bands, it was used a code signalling life-threatening emergencies, allowing staff to organise the audience's exit without causing the panic that a straightforward announcement would have done. One example of its use was during the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944, one of the worst fire emergencies in US history.

3.The Star-Spangled Banner

The national anthem of the United States, this tune started life as a popular song written by the British composer John Stafford Smith for a men's social club in London, before being repurposed as an emblem of US patriotism. The words were by the 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key, inspired by the large U.S. flag, with 15 stars and 15 stripes, that flew triumphantly above the fort after the US victory in the Battle of Baltimore of 1812.

4.America The Beautiful

This song was born out of a poem called Pikes Peak by the American author, professor and social activist Katharine Lee Bates. She wrote it in 1893 on a train ride to Colorado, (where she had taken up a teaching post) inspired by the view of the Great Plains from the pinnacle of the mountain. The poem, which was published two years later, quickly caught the public imagination, and several composers tried setting it to music. By far the most popular attempt, however, was that of the church organist and choirmaster Samuel A.Ward, who, despite never meeting Bates, perfectly captured the majestic lyricism of her poetry. The result, first published in combination with Bates's words in 1910, was one of the most popular American patriotic songs of all time.

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5.My Country, 'Tis of Thee

The melody is the same as that of the British national anthem 'God Save the King', but the words are by the 19th century American Baptist minister, journalist and author Samuel Francis Smith and were first performed at a children's Independence Day celebration in Boston in 1831. Since then the song has been performed at all sorts of high profile occasions, not least the first inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, when it was sung by Aretha Franklin. It also exists in a lesser-known abolitionist version, written by A.G. Duncan, in 1843: 'My country, 'tis of thee, Stronghold of slavery, of thee I sing.'

6. God Bless America

Irving Berlin wrote this song during World War I in 1918, but never published it. So in the end it was the singer Kate Smith who brought it to the public's attention, resurrecting it on the eve of World War II. Coming across as a prayer for deliverance in dark times, it was used early on during the Civil Rights movement and has long served as something of a political talisman, with presidents since Ronald Reagan ending their speeches with it.

7. The Battle Cry of Freedom

This song, written by George Frederick Root in 1862, became so popular that at one point its music publisher could not keep up with demand, despite having 14 printing presses going at once. Loudly supportive of unionism and the abolition of slavery, it was used as the campaign song for the Lincoln-Johnson ticket in the 1864 presidential election, and it has remained a favourite, regularly quoted over the years by artists ranging from Elvis Costello to the 20th century composer Charles Ives, who included it in several of his works.

8. The Washington Post

John Philip Sousa was asked to compose this march in 1889 for an essay contest awards ceremony run by the Washington Post. The result was an instant hit, leading a British journalist to dub Sousa 'The March King'. It still ranks amongst his most famous works.

9. Yankee Doodle

As well as being a popular nursery rhyme on both sides of the Atlantic, this chirpy song serves a patriotic function in the US and is, in fact, the state anthem of Connecticut. Although it was originally sung by British soldiers to mock the 'Yankees' in the pre-revolutionary age, it gradually morphed into an American song of defiance, with added verses that mocked British troops.

10. Battle Hymn of the Republic

The abolitionist poet and writer Julia Ward Howe wrote this song to the abolitionist tune of 'John Brown's Body' in 1861, on the eve of the American civil war. Over the next 150 years it became associated with the Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, the last line Martin Luther King ever spoke in public came from this hymn. 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,' he said on April 3 1968 in a speech that supported striking sanitation workers in Memphis.


Photo: Noah Wulf


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.