Uncle Sam Jams: A Look at America's Musical Propaganda

Categories: Holidays

The Fourth of July is a great day to be an American. For one day a year, every man, woman and child gets to picnic, watch fireworks, and play reverently American songs with sweet abandon.

But the Internet isn't an American. And it hears everything. This Independence Day, we're looking back at a darker era, when wars and civil rights struggles produced "patriotic" songs with notably dark themes. It turns out that political propaganda makes for some very strange music. Here's a look back -- but proceed with caution, especially if you love the motherland.

1940s - Fascism Meets Donald Duck

Originally, composer Oliver Wallace wrote "Der Fuehrer's Face; or, the Nazi Song" to accompany Donald Duck in Nutzi Land, an attempt to market war bonds under the kinda-sorta-not-at-all guise of a Disney animated short. If the title isn't enough to woo you, the song itself is played by marching band made up of noted fascists (Goebbels on trombone!) as they accompany Donald Duck on a prance through Nazi wonderland (Swastikas grow on trees! Mini-Hitler squawks from a cuckoo clock!). But the song is almost better a cappella:

"When Herr Goebbels says we own the world and space
We heil heil right in Herr Goebbels' face
When Herr Goring says they'll never bomb dis place
We heil heil right in Herr Goring's face
Are we not he supermen Aryan pure supermen
Ja we are the supermen (super duper supermen)"

1950s - "Get That Communist, Joe!"

The 1950s saw two forms of prejudice come to a head: sexism and the Red Scare. The Kavaliers artfully blended both with "Get that Communist Joe," a song about a good old capitalist boy asking Senator Joe McCarthy, noted anti-communist and alcoholic bully, for help with his red-leaning lady:

"He's fillin' my gal with propaganda
And I'm scared she will meander"
Hmm...maybe more than vaguely.

"See that guy with the red suspenders
Driving that car with the bright red fenders
I know he's one of those heavy spenders
Get that Communist Joe"

Aw, come on. Suspenders were kind of cool back then. Also, isn't heavy spending, i.e. participating in market capitalism, not exactly the Communists' cup of tea? Or bowl of bartered borscht? Whatever.

1960s - Paternal Abandonment in Sweet Saigon

Most propaganda songs of the 1950s and '60s spoke to domestic conflicts rather than foreign affairs. In "An Open Letter to My Teenage Son," Victor Lundberg begs his teenage son to go to Vietnam like a good American boy, throwing in references to long-haired hippies and the death of God along the way. It's less a song than a sermon, though -- a didactic precursor to rap, minus, well, rhythm.

It's only when Lundberg begins directly addressing the son, a typical G.I. Joe torn apart by the war's unique thrust of patriotism and protest, that the piece truly realizes itself as canned reactionary rhetoric. Not only does Lundberg reveal his sexism with a tidy two sentences:

"I will remind you that your mother will love you no matter what you do. Because she's a woman."

He also lays bare his paternal incompetence by threatening his only kid with abandonment:

"If you decide to burn your draft card, burn your birth certificate too," he advises, a little note of hysteria slipping into his manly monotone. "From that moment on, I have no son."
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Battle Cry of the Tiger Father. But now we're onto the '70s, and things are looking ... up?

1970s - A Very Groovy Birthday

The '70s were the kickoff decade for the War on Drugs -- but the era's druggiest piece of propaganda had (ostensibly) nothing to do with drugs at all. Rather, it was a video by animator Vincent Collins in 1976, commissioned by the U.S. Information Agency to celebrate the nation's 200th birthday. Here it is, accompanied by a neuron-melting guitar groove. Watch an eagle melt into a liberty bell and back again as it soars through a United States complete with oozing versions of national landmarks like Mount Rushmore and the Golden Gate Bridge.

All right, that's enough. Now crank up the Jerry Garcia, happy Fourth of July, and God bless America.

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