Songs that refer to the Fourth of July—or its more generic synonym, Independence Day—fall into two camps of distinct subject matter and spirit.
By and large, Fourth of July songs, or those that call the holiday by name, mostly deal with the long, lazy weekend that has come to symbolize the very heart of American summer. These songs are perfumed with grill smoke and suntan lotion, warm beer and fireworks. Songs that refer to Independence Day, however, are primarily concerned with personal, and not national, liberation.
Bruce Springsteen, that most American of singer-songwriters, appropriately illustrates the dichotomy with a pair of songs released seven years apart: During 1973's "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," you can almost smell the cheap beer and the salty air. The very first guitar frills seem like a continuation of the tweet-tweets at the tail end of "Layla," and, on the stirring climax, Springsteen himself uses a recorder to do an uncanny impression of a seagull chorus. The final musical phrase could almost segue into The Crystals' "And Then He Kissed Me." From the Tilt-a-Whirl and the pier lights to the boys from the casino who dance with their shirts open, the details give off the unmistakable waft of summer torpor. The song's sweetest image—"The aurora is risin' behind us"—is one of the most poetic in all of Boss-dom, imbuing the heat-streaked essence of the Fourth with an aura of optimism.
Across town is Springsteen's elegiac "Independence Day," which feels something like the "Born to Run" escape scenario. Its tale of a young man who ditches his acrimonious home life for parts unknown seems filmed not as a splashy epic but rather like a documentary. You can practically see the Ken Burns-style dissolve shots of faded Polaroids taken in small-town New Jersey. "Now the rooms are all empty down at Frankie's joint," he sings. "And the highway, she's deserted down to Breaker's Point."
Other "Independence Day" ditties are similarly dark: Martina McBride's tune, later re-recorded by Carrie Underwood, takes Bruce's emancipation tale one step further, with a young woman burning down the house of her abusive father. The dour churner by the unheralded Comsat Angels keeps returning to the axiomatic line "I can't relax 'cause I haven't done a thing/ and I can't do a thing 'cause I can't relax." The exception here oddly comes from Elliott Smith. His "Independence Day" is the lightest, most optimistic song in his canon, an offer of assurances to "a future butterfly," all set to a lilting lepidopteron melody.
July 4th is not without its critics, of course. Any list of prominent July 4th naysayers has to include Aimee Mann, who memorably characterized the whole affair as a "waste of gunpowder and sky." It's doubtful that she gets invited to many backyard barbecues. Galaxie 500's "Fourth" is no less bleak: "I stayed inside on the Fourth of July," declares Dean Wareham in an ennui-ridden Sprechgesang. "I pulled the shades so I didn't have to see the sky/ And I decided to have a bed-in/ But I forgot to invite anybody." Soundgarden's "4th of July" is even a vision of hell in which Christ makes an appearance. Just imagine that sentiment scoring celestial displays of pyrotechnic chrysanthemums.
The most memorable instances of the Fourth of July in song—"Sandy" being a rare exception—rely on a vocal hook built around that toothsome title phrase. Whether it's supplying the juice in the George M. Cohan standard "The Yankee Doodle Boy" ("born on/ the Fourth-of/ Ju-LI-I-I-IE..."), the "Miss Mary Mack"-referencing "Walking the Dog" by Rufus Thomas ("Didn't come back 'til the Fourth of Ju-lie") or the proudly imprecise "Saturday in the Park" by Chicago ("I think it was the Fourth of July"), this phrase needs to be belted.
Dave Alvin of The Blasters makes the best of the syllables in his "Fourth of July," which starts off spare and lonesome and gradually builds toward a rapturous chorus: "Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of Joo-lie," it goes, rising like a dark, cool wave through the heat. This season, who can't identify with that feeling?