Some songs are inescapable when talking about America. "This Land is Your Land." "America The Beautiful." "The Thong Song."
Like folk papa Woody Guthrie, some of the most meaningful performances in American history come from songs that've seen decades of roamin' and ramblin'. Others have proven special by capturing a strikingly honest, often unseen pocket of US life. Both types of songs can be powerful emotion-stokers, and even more powerful booty-shakers.
Here are 13 musical performances tied to the uniquely American experience that we probably wouldn't turn off at our annual Freedom Weenie Roast. Enjoy, and don't eat too many sparklers, Sparklers.
Simon and Garfunkel - "America"
Pretty much any song from Simon and G-dog's hits catalog could fit comfortably into this playlist, but this particular ballad about looking for America in cornfields and turnpikes is so filled with romance—both for a special travel companion, and the country being traveled—it's just irresistible.
Aerosmith - "Last Child"
When Steven Tyler sings about taking a head trip back home to Tallahassee, he's a few miles off. The New York-born, Boston-honed rocker might be taking creative liberties here for the sake of the rhyme scheme, but this chugging groove still retains the carefree spirit of ma's cookin' and a run through sprawling meadows—plus, its bridge is home to one of Joe Perry's shortest, sweetest solos.
Public Enemy - "Don't Believe The Hype"
Before Flava Flav became a Comedy Central punchline, he emceed with Chuck D in one of the most important rap upstarts of the late '80s. Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back rocked the rap game with some of the first sample- and noise-heavy production, and a rhyming encyclopedia of the African American experience. This track about using your mind instead of your TV eyeballs remains a culturally potent wakeup today.
Aretha Franklin - "My Country 'Tis of Thee"
An American treasure (Aretha) commemorates an American milestone (the election of the first black president) with an American standard (this song.) Americanness ensues.
Bob Dylan - "Song To Woody"
Long before he became the rolling stone of folk poetry, lil Bobby D was enamored with Woody Guthrie's everyman anthems. Taking a crack at his hero's style, Bobby took a lap around America to come up with this teaser look at the "paupers and peasants and princes and kings" he'd later extrapolate on in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." This version with George Harrison comes closely after the Beatles break-up of 1970 (a big year, as you'll keep seeing).
Bruce Springsteen - "4th of July, Asbury Park"
The Boss' ode to a local girl (one of many in his repertoire) is not only a perfectly sweet July 4th ditty, it's also a primer in Jersey boardwalk mythology. Listen, and think about a corner of America that doesn't quite exist with this same storybook sheen anymore.
James Brown - "Living in America"
The hardest working man in show bizness huffs over busy horns, "You might not be looking for the promised land, but you might find it anyway." Encouraging words to ponder as you shake your butt like an idiot to this 1985 funk necessity for four-and-a-half minutes.
John Mellencamp - "Jack and Diane"
This suburban storyteller's ditty of "two American kids doing the best they can" casts small town youth in amber, putting big city dreams (and adult problems) comfortably out of reach. Sing and stomp along with your parents if you wanna loosen their lips for some embarrassing makeout stories.
Jimi Hendrix - "The Star Spangled Banner"
This notorious moment from the 1970 Woodstock-umentary (edited by a blossoming Martin Scorsese, among others) comes loaded with context. It's Monday, August 18, 1969, and the groundbreaking three-day festival has bled into it's fourth brutal morning. It's been pouring rain all weekend and the fields are slick with mud—parts of the stage have been electrified and sent some musicians home early—and only about 10% of the festival's 400,000 attendants remain for the final set of the weekend. Jimi Hendrix takes the stage and lets loose a barrage of fuzz, incendiary feedback growls and red-glaring rockets of distorted guitar. It's hard to say what Jimi's message was with his garbled, violent "Banner." But there's no question that, for those few who saw it, the performance was an unforgettably chilling American moment.
Whitney Houston - "The Star Spangled Banner"
This rendition of the National Anthem has a big story too, though not as exuberant as the one surrounding Jimi's. During the height of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Whitney took the field at Super Bowl XXV to send a tribute to the troops overseas. True to form, Whitney's performance is heartfelt and stunning. It's interesting how many different tones a single harmony can take on, innit?
Neil Young - "Ohio"
Always a vocal iconoclast, Neil Young wrote this rumblin, grumblin protest tune in response to the Kent State shootings of 1970 (there it is again!) While it does deal with a dark moment in history, its sobering refrain "How can you run when you know?" courses through an unending legacy of American populist movements, felt even in today's Occupy protests. Plus—that guitar, man.
Cat Power - "American Flag"
To be honest, any deeper meaning about America this song has to offer is lost on us. It's just a righteous groove, and Chan Marshall is possibly our oldest velvet-voiced indie crush. Her newest single, about ruins in America and other places , is pretty bomb, too.
Brad Neely - "America Now: Health"
If you hit any indie film showcases this holiday weekend, you'll probably run into Brad Neely's legendarily inappropriate George Washington rap. A few years ago the cartoonist, songwriter and unofficial Harry Potter narrator also enjoyed a (slightly) more PC run on Adult Swim with the 12-part series of 30-second song clips, America Now. (He now has his own series called China, IL.) The above topic, Health, is the catchiest. Watch the rest here.