Poster A sparkler and an American flag.
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Celebrate July Fourth with these musical fireworks

In the early 1990s, I was working at a commercial AM radio station in Lincoln, Nebraska, with a full-service, news, sports, weather, talk and, yes, music format. It was a terrific radio station (KFOR) with a consistently large audience. I did a little bit of everything at KFOR, which was great. I was young, enthusiastic and not without some attitude.

That attitude would always rear its head around two specific holidays — Christmas and Independence Day. The problem? The holiday music that was added to the playlists. Now Christmas is a whole other story that I won't get into here. Suffice to say that if “A Holly Jolly Christmas” showed up on the playlist, it would be scrubbed for something like “The Sussex Carol.” You know, Cambridge Singers off the bench for Burl Ives — seems like a good swap, right? I'd never bat an eye. Occasionally, I'd be reprimanded. And it was always worth it.

This time of year there was one record that always set me off: Lee Greenwood's “God Bless the USA.” That gooey, inordinate, moralistic schlep of a song would start showing up in late June, maybe a couple of weeks leading into the Fourth. If it appeared on my playlist, it was immediately tossed aside for something much better. It's not like you had to look far. I don't know — maybe Sousa or Copland? Inevitably, there would be questions about this practice. Aren't you proud to be an American? Everybody loves that one!

Well, yes, mostly — and no!

The way I figured it, “God Bless the USA” had been having its way with America since 1984, at ballparks, parades, celebrations, you name it. Why should it get another three minutes of radio airtime at 10:30 a.m. in Lincoln, Nebraska?

Lee, you can sit this one out.

So what exactly was the something much better? Ah, that's the fun part. It's a big reason why I absolutely loved working leading up to and on July Fourth. I'd basically have free rein to play whatever I wanted because no one else was too interested in working those days.

And my playlist was strong.

‘The Civil War’

July Fourth Musical Picks
Elektra Nonesuch

Let's start with this one: The original soundtrack to Ken Burns' PBS documentary film The Civil War.

Over five consecutive nights in September 1990, the country was captivated by this series that brought the horrific consequences of a nation divided to American TV screens. Early the next year, the PBS affiliate in Lincoln announced it would reair the series later that spring. On a whim, I called WGBH in Boston to see if Burns would be available for a phone interview ahead of the re-airing. To my utter amazement, the woman who answered at WGBH gave me Burns' home phone number and told me to give him a call "a week from Saturday."

Remember, this was early 1991, but still.....

So I called Ken Burns at home on a Saturday morning in March. The creator of the most-talked-about film in the country at that time answered the phone (I could hear children playing in the background) and after I told him my name and that I hoped he was expecting my call, his first words to me were, "Who are you and how did you get this number?" I'm guessing the woman back at WGBH probably heard from him the following Monday, but to his everlasting credit, he exhaled and gave me 20 solid minutes on the phone — on a Saturday morning when his documentary film was all the rage.

We devoted a lot of time talking about the music in the film and the important role it played in supporting the many images (still pictures — no film footage in the 1860s!) used in the documentary. This was music that conveyed not only the spirit of the North and South, but also the many hardships experienced by families divided and the forlorn emptiness of ravaged battlefields. This music was the heart and soul, the good and bad of a nation during its absolute worst time.

“Battle Cry of Freedom,” “We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder,” “Dixie,” “Bonnie Blue Flag,” “Lorena,” “Parade,” “Hail, Columbia,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Flag of Columbia,” “Weeping Sad and Lonely,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Shenandoah,” “Marching Through Georgia” and several more — the music of the era is all represented in wonderful arrangements with fiddle, guitar and piano prominently featured.

But the crown jewel of The Civil War soundtrack is the only modern piece of music heard in the film, Jay Ungar's Ashokan Farewell, which carried the documentary from start to finish. By the end of the five-day run in 1990, you'd hear that haunting violin melody and the film's images would immediately reappear in your mind. Ungar once described it as "a song coming out of a sense of loss and longing."

Why did it have to come to this?

Those words come to mind the second I hear that melody — words that, sadly, ring true for the United States today, which is every bit as divided as it was 160 years ago.

Spirit. Loss. Pride. Shame. Hardship. Celebration. Reflection.

It's what the country has experienced over the past 247 years and all of that is represented beautifully in the The Civil War soundtrack.

‘American Portraits’

July Fourth Musical Picks

But I get it.

Independence Day also is about sunshine and 90 degrees, hot dogs and ice cream, marching bands, shorts and flip-flops, ice tea, cold beer, parades with Shriners driving tiny cars in a tight circle, and, yeah, throw in some fireworks at the end of the day for effect. I'm down with that, too. But the music for the day is still the best part!

So here's a suggestion or two for that, as well: American Portraits.

This recording is a go-to for me every year as soon as the summer solstice takes place. Again, we're talking early ‘90s. Leonard Slatkin and the St.Louis Symphony Orchestra provide a delightful mix of Americana spanning the entire life of the nation. From Virgil Thomson's Fugue and Chorale on 'Yankee Doodle' to Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Lincoln Portrait (with an assist from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf).

Two highly underrated pieces turn up — Dudley Buck's Festival Overture on 'The Star Spangled Banner' and Victor Herbert's American Fantasia, a potpourri of national tunes. Need some tradition? Then how about John Philip Sousa's El Capitan, Edwin Eugene Bagley's National Emblem March and Richard Hayman's Servicemen on Parade.

Roy Ringwald's 1947 choral-orchestral arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” stops me in my tracks every time it reaches the end, when the chorus (the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Chorus, in this case) sings fortepiano the final "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah" and the chord on the first "Glory" changes ever-so-slightly from what you were expecting. I know it's coming every time, and I totally savor it.

That is how music can truly reflect the definition of a word. “Glory.” “High renown or honor.” “Magnificence or great beauty.” Ringwald gives it to you with that single chord change.

‘The American Album’

July Fourth Musical Picks

If you want more from Slatkin and the SLSO, there's another gem from the previous year (1991): The American Album.

This one features Morton Gould's American Salute, Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever and The Washington Post March, Charles Ives' marvelous Variations on ‘America,’ William Schuman's "Chester" from New England Triptych, Joan Tower's Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 and a few notable others.

But the star of the show is the emotional Carmen Dragon/Richard Hayman setting of America the Beautiful. There's no need for a John Wayne voice-over or chants of “USA! USA! USA!” No. This is like being on a glider, flying across the country. Close your eyes and think about the things you love the most. That is America the Beautiful.

Other recommendations

More, you ask? OK, here you go:

Liberty! — This album features Mark O'Connor, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis and James Taylor. That lineup alone sells itself. This soundtrack from the six-part PBS series Liberty! The American Revolution showcases the versatile O'Connor at his best. Through music, he chronicles the entire story of the birth of a nation — the ideas, the politics, the military struggles. His Song of the Liberty Bell begins and ends (different versions) the recording — another of those works that makes me stop, listen, think and appreciate the efforts of those who laid the groundwork for a nation to survive. Also not to be missed is Richard Einhorn's stunning Freedom, performed by the Nashville Symphony and conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn.

Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns — Yes, Ken did it again four years later with his follow-up to The Civil War. What's more Americana than baseball, right? This soundtrack totally crushes — not just a home run, but a grand slam!

A Grand Sousa Concert — You simply must have a solid shot of Sousa on Independence Day and the days leading up to the Fourth. This recording gives it to you. The Pathfinder of Panama, The Gladiator, Foshay Tower Washington Memorial, King Cotton, Sabre and Spurs, Manhattan Beach and (yes, Monty Python fans!) The Liberty Bell, among many others, are all there. It's Mark Gould and Sam Pilafian with the Great American Main Street Band, conducted by Timothy Foley. An Independence Day music must-have!

Also on my list:

  • The soundtrack from Ken Burns' production of the Stephen Ives documentary The West.

  • American Piano Classics, featuring music by Leroy Anderson, George Gershwin, Louis M. Gottschalk, Hershy Kay, Euday Bowman, Scott Joplin and Morton Gould — with pianists Steward Goodyear, Keith Lockhart, William Tritt and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, conducted by Erich Kunzel.

  • John Prine's In Spite of Ourselves (for something to break it up a tad — still so Americana.

July Fourth Musical Picks

And finally, a classic that I find myself leaning on every year as we get closer to July Fourth: Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”

Simon's meditation on the American experience was written more than 50 years ago, based on the melody of the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”:

And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, and it's alright, it's alright, it's alright
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest

Sums it up pretty well, don't you think? Independence Day. Have fun. Be careful with those fireworks — don't become a YouTube video gone viral. Enjoy the parade, the sun, the beer, a hot dog or two.

But, most of all, enjoy the music.

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