OK, I get it. Our military history is inextricably linked to our pursuit of freedom and democracy. Even the very fireworks we use to celebrate this day are a reflection of the munitions used to secure such freedoms. While July 4th was the actual Signing of the Declaration, only a long and bloody conflict made that declaration stick.
I would not want to diminish the contributions made by our service personnel by any stretch of the imagination. However…
Lately it seems that every national holiday has turned into an over-the-top tribute to our troops. I’ve heard multiple tributes on various radio stations, even our local public radio. I guess that’s to be expected in a time of war, but especially here in the Republican South it has almost turned into a glorification of war, especially in an election year where the war is a major issue. Memorial and Veterans Days – fine. But the Fourth of July is more than that. It’s a recognition of of what this great nation has become since that bold declaration, including relative peace and security for its denizens. As for me, I think I’m ready to get back to baseball and apple pie and the more peaceful aspects, at least for this Fourth of July.
Patriotic music has always been a challenge for me as a church music director. Most of it is secular in nature, with the exception of a few well-known national hymns. This tends to limit one’s repertoire for Sundays around July 4th. You can’t just ignore the date and stick with whatever is on the liturgical calendar, but “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America the Beautiful” get tiring after awhile. James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” makes a nice alternative, but even that gets old. I’m especially appalled when churches use Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” for July 4 services, simply because the word “God” appears in the chorus.
There are some good anthems in the choral literature, but another solution I’ve found is to delve into my collection of antique hymnals. I’ve got some dating back to the 1820’s. That’s only one generation removed from the War for Independence, and even closer to the War of 1812. Those memories were still relatively fresh when the hymnal was published, and the national hymns tend to reflect those sentiments. A patriotic wash of 226 years of history had not diminished their thankfulness to God for their new land. That thankfulness was still vivid in these hymns. And there were more of them. Through the years these national hymns have been winnowed and filtered until just a few fit into our modern hymnals. It can be refreshing to take a new look at some of these.
While on the subject of patriotic music, I do have one note of puzzlement. I’ve never understood from a historical standpoint why Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” is so popular for Fourth of July concerts. I can understand that the cannons and fireworks fit in with the overall boisterous nature of the holiday. However, it’s a commemoration of a Russian victory over the French, who had been our allies during our wars of independence. Just seems a bit odd to me.