Lee Greenwood and the EFBAWM: an annotation of the lyrics of "God Bless the USA"

Whenever I do lectures on music and fascism I include a belted out solo version of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”. Most of the time, and I’ve been doing this for years, students laugh and say "oh, Dr Drew’s such a card" and such things, but in my recent lecture on Music and Fascism in the Interwar Years, they all looked at me, gape-jawed, horrified, like I was bleeding out of my eyes, which was really a much more gratifying response.

Anyway, this is my annotated version of the lyrics.  Now you may be thinking, why spend time analysing the words of a 1980s pop country singer? But, let’s remember that Lee Greenwood still performs this song, which is wildly popular even now in certain circles of American culture, being performed by the man himself at the Make America Great Again Welcome Concert in January of 2017. It's relevant. I should also be clear that I have no complaint with anyone loving this song. I love plenty, and I mean plenty, of songs with lyrics that don't stand a whole lot of scrutiny, and setting aside the fact that the chorus starts on the 5th of the dominant chord and arpeggiates upward, which a number of years worth of hammered in, pointless 18th century musical conventional harmonic practice tells me is really quite unstable (and of course Lee Greenwood fans everyone hear this and forgive him anyway) - ha ha nerdy harmony stuff. ANYWAY, paying attention to this one helps me to diagnose something important: that we have right now an ascendant, easy-does-it, anti-intellectual, anti-reason, appeal-to-the-heart-and-gut, blood and soil, illiberal type of thinking that has come to the surface of politics in USA. And it worries me. 

So, I’m not really arguing with Lee Greenwood, nor ultimately do I worry much about the effects of one pop song, because that would be dumb. But Lee is kindly if unwittingly providing me with a framework for writing about something I’ve been wanting to write about. Thanks, Lee.

If tomorrow all the things were gone

I’d worked for all my life

And I had to start again,

With just my children and my wife.

This was originally recorded by Greenwood in 1983 in Nashville, Tennessee. The early 80s economic recession had turned around and unemployment was falling in the USA.  Further, the Boomers were just beginning to really flex their economic muscle. People in the US could more or less rely on what they want to believe is still true now, which is that if you work hard and are a decent person, then you’ll be comfortable and have things. These lines are saturated with that world, and evoke the combed-hair, furrowed-brow earnestness of a man who deserves what he’s got.  This was my childhood. I remember believing in it, and believing all the nastier bits that went along with it.  Have-nots are that way for a reason.  They deserve what they get too. 

To some extent this entire first verse is a premonition. This big IF that Greenwood is describing is exactly the IF that the earnest, furrowed-browed, American working man (EFBAWM?) is now facing in so many ways. Having to start again with something new, after the collapse of manufacturing, mining, and so many of the things that have shed so many jobs in my lifetime, is exactly what some people are facing. 

I’d thank my lucky stars

To be living here today

The message here seems to be that there is something about America that will always guarantee that those who work hard will get what they deserve, even if all is lost. And I think this really does illustrate the anger and frustration of so many people on realising that it may not be true after all. My sense is that, at the time, the sentiment referred to a kind of unchecked free market capitalism, but to be fair, pop songs are rarely this specific. I believe that it still is a principal project of the American right to divest state and federal governments of much of their power to regulate industries and tax businesses, so that a rising tide of unencumbered economic growth will carry the EFBAWM to a brighter economic future.  But I also think that 35 years on there is evidence that the EFBAWM might be changing his tune.  Call Trump’s electoral success and tenacious 38ish percent approval ratings what you will, I see no valid argument that it has anything to do with Reagan’s City on a Hill vision, less even that of John Winthrop (which Reagan loved to talk about but rather blithely overlooked had nothing to do with inclusive economic freedom), and way, way, way further away from Jesus’s (see the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14). But I digress. Trump’s populism, as much as it seems contradictory in so many ways, is an indication of a loss of faith in the traditional conservative economic project (a project we can partly trace back to my 18th century UoG colleague), and certainly is no stamp of approval on shiny Clinton-ish neoliberalism. 

Anyhoo, let’s talk semiotics.

‘Cuz the flag still stands for freedom

And they can’t take that away

Does it? And who can’t take what away? The problem with symbols is that there is no ultimate arbiter of what they mean. Only a fool would say that when someone burns an American flag, or even attacks America itself, that it is because they hate the flag itself, or some objective notion of freedom, the thing that this lyric holds to be symbolised by the flag. This was amply illustrated by one prominent fool, President George W. Bush, who said just that very thing about terrorism. Symbolism is a fluid, contingent, and inherently subjective, if also inter-subjective phenomenon. Call this the Babylon Principle: If it weren’t true, then we’d all speak the same language. Signs and symbols are not the same as what they signify or symbolise. I myself love the hell out of some freedom, but the American flag and the country in general simply do not always symbolise freedom even to me, much less to someone who has had to fear death and destruction from an American military drone strike. This leaves aside the fact that the concept of freedom itself is extremely opaque and hard to nail down. Suggested new lyric: ‘Cuz to me the flag still stands for freedom as I perceive it, but may or may not to you, because that’s just how things work.

One of the things that fascism always relies on – I can think of no exception – is a constructed fear of a widely defined other. Nowadays in the U.S. they have become many things, including, foreigners, the media, thinking types who like to write about stuff, pedantic/stuffy specialists with degrees and opinions about what folks should do. Oh, and Muslims. And of course black folks, or at least ones who get ticked off about being overly shot by police. That’s who they have become to many people, who can’t take that, presumably either the flag itself, or the meaning of the flag, away.  On the second that, i.e. the meaning of the flag, I’ve already said: it’s fluid, changeable, can mean different things to different people in different contexts. On the first that, the flag itself, well, I can say this. If the USA becomes a true fascist country, in the sense that our freedom to do something like peacefully protest in public, or criticise the president, is taken away – and it hasn’t happened, we’re not even close, despite what shouty 20-year-olds with handkerchief masks like to say – but if it becomes one in the future, which is a possibility, then it is likely that the people who make it so will be carrying Old Glory with them, waving it in people’s faces, telling them that they are the other, the they, the UnAmericans. A symbol is not what it symbolises. Not knowing that is dangerous.

To hammer that point into the ground, there is this wonderful ancient, pan-Asian religious symbol, found in Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and elsewhere, that a bunch of real honest-to-goodness pricks decided to adopt as their own in the 1930s. It’s called a swastika. Try to look at it in a new light, will you?  Yes, if 卐is tattooed on a person’s forehead, I don’t think that there is any doubt of the message being sent. But if you know the greater history of the symbol, you can learn the lesson, and I’ll say it again, that a symbol is not the same thing as what it symbolises. That phenomenon of significance is not fixed, and can change.


And I’m proud to be an American

Where at least I know I’m free

Yeah, this is true, or can be true, depending on who, when, and where you are in America, and what you mean by freedom. Let’s play a little geo-historical roulette, here, accepting that Lee’s context was the late 20th century. In the 1850s, in the slave states, if you were black, the fact that you were an American (or rather residing in the country – you were not considered a citizen) would likely mean that you were very not free. As an aside, which is not needed for my argument but should be acknowledged, the same was true in many ways if you were a woman of any colour. In fact, at that point, the lines I’m proud to be an American, Where at least I know I can still own black people, would have been entirely appropriate, given that the whole of the British Empire had outlawed slavery some 30 years beforehand. Now, many would point out that we have Republicans to thank for the end of this situation, who even at that time had something like the free market economic perspective they held 100+ years later. They’re right, we do. But understand that my point isn’t a partisan one, it’s only that being American alone certainly has not always meant one was free. And yeah, we fixed the slavery thing, but let’s face it, 100 years later, the lyrics I’m proud to be an American, Where at least I know I can utilise a states’ rights argument to deny the freedoms of black people through discriminatory polling practices, segregation, murder, and informal terror campaigns, would have fit too. Even now, it could go, I’m proud to be an American, Where at least I know that some state governments are creative enough to find new, difficult-to-litigate-against, ways of disenfranchising minorities, and that blacks are far more likely to be killed than whites by police, and that attempts to address this issue will be met with the insensitive and absurd retaliation that “all lives matter”, even when they VERY FUCKING OBVIOUSLY DON’T. [pant, pant] I recognise that these suggested edits don’t really work out rhythmically.

But let’s focus a bit more.  What did the lyric mean, then, in the 1980s, and what could it mean now? The implication of the words seems to me to be that freedom is something enjoyed only by Americans, or in the very least that we enjoy some rarefied form not available in most nations in the developed world. One might argue that it is simply pointing out that our freedom is precious, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. But the words at least I know I’m free suggest to me a huffy, arrogant, dismissive attitude about what passes for freedom in those weird other countries. Yet I sit here, in my adopted home of the United Kingdom, and can think of no quantity or quality of freedom, overall, that is different than what I experienced in my many years as a resident American. Sure, some specifics are different, and in some ways, I may be less free in the U.K., but in others, I’m truly freer

Being honest, trying my best to engage with a good faith argument about this, and to not construct a flimsy straw man, I can understand that a conservative economic view may hold that the lyric refers to a specific kind of American free enterprise, and culture of free innovation, which is at the root of U.S. cultural and economic hegemony in the 20th century. I can understand this argument, and agree with it to an extent.  But also, to this (hopefully, satisfyingly robust) straw man, I would ask, whose hegemony are we talking about? A nation that does not use its government to ensure the rights of the most disadvantaged of its population, is a nation that cannot be free for everyone. What freedom does the person born with nothing, nothing to their name, or to borrow Bourdieu, no social, cultural, nor economic capital to speak of, what freedom does such a person have, when compared to the Trumps of our world? Surely that discrepancy, that vast universe of experiential distance between the prospects of Barron Trump and that of a child born into poverty, tarnishes the alluring lustre of a pure free market economic vision. And maybe that’s what’s at play here in the disintegration of Reagan-type economics in the present Republican party voter base.  It can be of little doubt that since “God Bless the USA” first hit the airwaves, one thing has been certain: virtually all of the economic growth in the U.S. has been swallowed up by the haves, the born-withs, the given-to-alreadys, the Trumps, the 1% of the country. Trump may have been an extraordinarily stupid response to that fact, but there is little doubt that it was a response.  If there was nothing wrong with the 80s Republican economic vision, then he never would have got the nomination, much less be redecorating the Oval Office.

And I won’t forget the men who died

Who gave that right to me

This is the old Appeal to the Fallen Heroes argument, which is on the face of it an unassailable position, because who but a very bad person would disrespect people who died to protect their way of life? I haven’t forgotten, and I won’t. 

But the position becomes downright odious when it’s used to shut down efforts to keep people – men, women, and children – from dying to give us jack shit, which is very much what happened when the USA barbequed folks in their homes in Vietnam in the late ‘60s.  I use this example because historical distance makes it a bit clearer, but could I not ask the question of recent times? What right of mine was protected by the death of a child in a drone strike? Also, is giving me rights always what those who die within the ranks of our own military do nowadays? I’m not convinced that it is. No, I won’t forget those women and men who died to give me freedom, but I also won’t forget all the other ones who died – women, men, children, anywhere in the world – to give me nothing. I feel that is a moral responsibility. 

And I’ll gladly stand up next to you

and defend her still today

Ah, Columbia, where have you gone? It’s probably been a century now since you were regularly used to personify the nation. I guess it makes sense that Lady Liberty supplanted Columbia in the collective imagination, but honestly, Ms Liberty pretty much is Columbia in big pointy-hat, metal statue form. But whether you’re talking about Lady Liberty/Columbia, or Marianne and Britannia, her other freedom-lovin’, drapery wearin’, gal pals, one thing is for certain: dudes like to personify as chicks stuff they want to protect.  Even when boats are named things like The USS John McCain, they’re still women. I don’t think this is necessarily even a bad thing except for the extent to which it may leave out all the real, thinking, breathing, non-symbol women out there who might want to symbolise nations in their own way, and that might not always be as a woman in bedsheets.

Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land

God Bless the USA

Looking through youtube comments, the popular old “love it or leave it” chestnut comes to the surface, which seems only used to discredit any type of critical voice. The argument is predicated on the idea that criticism for US governmental policies, or the actions of American peoples, is the same as saying you don’t love the place itself.  Yet, these arguments are as often as not made in communities who call that very place their home, and are making such arguments out of a love for that home. 

The #1 comment in the video above is from tiger518 with over 200 replies.  It is easy to see why this is not a run-of-the-mill rah, rah, USA! type of comment. You see, the english is charmingly off, and the person clearly states that they are not American. There is nothing that many in the US love more than to have a foreinger, in broken english, talk about how great they think the US is (aw, bless their heart - or to use the hilarious Scottish variation, bless their wee cotton socks). And to be clear, I have no reason to doubt this person's perspective; they probably have it for genuinely good reasons. No, my interest is in the popularity of such comments, which can easily be held up as if to say, "look, we are special, they love us, they all love us". That's sad to me. 

From the Lakes of Minnesota

To the hills of Tennessee

Across the plains of Texas

From sea to shining sea


From Detroit down to Houston,

And New York to L.A.

Well there’s pride in every American heart

And it’s time we stand and say


That I’m proud…

Right, so this is mostly merely factual descriptions of the geographic scope of the USA, which if I am grasping for things to quibble with, and I VERY MUCH AM, I’d suggest that including parts of Alaska or Hawaii would have been better, no? But, turning it to something I actually want to write about, I can say that I, yes, even I, do contain a quantity of American pride in my metaphysical heart. I’m careful to say that becuase I really mean it and not becuase I think I'm supposed to. But, if I’m to really nail down how I feel – and oh, I feel a whole lot ­– about that place, that wonderful, immense, unforeseen and unforeseeable place, then “pride” fails as a word. It refers to a difficult concept – must be a real pain for people trying to learn the language.  Here we have this word, which is historically tied to the deadly Christian Superbia of 6th century St Cassian and Pope Greg, being suggested as a positive thing to feel for a country. I understand that this is now largely an archaic notion and that most folks think of pride as a good thing, but there are other things in that word that are not so good. I do rather like the Greek hubris, which is really a much better word for deadly sin #3, but anyway, if we can take the word, subtract the hubris-y connotation, and go with the feeling that I get when I’m thinking about that place, then more likely to get on board. This seems like splitting hairs, I know, but it is important for me to use words carefully. An unqualified statement of my pride in my Americanness just won’t work for me. I’m not always proud of that place, what it is, what it does, what it symbolises to me.

That place. No, I do not always feel proud of America the symbol, but sometimes I do. Nor do I always feel that for the actions of its government…and sometimes I do. But the place itself, the land and the people, well, I definitely feel something that I’m reticent to stain with a mere word. "Appreciation" or "admiration" are waaay too cold and reserved for my purposes, and I guess "love" might do, although there are few words more semantically flabby than that one. (I love Choco Leibniz chocolate cookies, for instance. I also love my family. These are not the same feelings.)  Hmm, I suppose I may want to describe how I feel in so many words, rather than one. SHOCKING.

By now, the intellectual concept of Place has become very well-rehearsed. The definition provided by Carter, Donald and Squires (Space and Place: theories of identity and location, 1993, p xii), a “space to which meaning has been ascribed”, has been the most interesting to me. The moral neutrality of it creates a blank canvas on which my real emotions for the USA might be painted.  That place, the meaning of which I and so many others ascribe, is rich and varied, and so distant in my mind from the pre-packaged, canned, easy sentimentality of Lee Greenwood.  That place is a place of struggle, pain, yes, but also of mind-boggling human and extra-human beauty and resiliancy.  There is so much to write about that place, my America, my home. Another time.