JULY 1, 2010 2:14PM

It's a Grand Old Song: 50s paranoia and political hymnody

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The Tea Party recently found something else besides the Constitution that needs reinvention: the patriotic song. Apparently, our old standbys – the Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and My Country 'Tis of Thee – don't cut it for these irrepressible mad hatters. Not even pop favorites like "You're a Grand Old Flag" make their hit parade.

So the "Don't tread on my Medicare" party launched what they are calling a "new, fresh idea" to "Unite America in Patriotic Song: We must once again, lift our voices singing revered music such as: 'Only in America', 'Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly’, 'American Soldier', or 'God Bless the USA'."

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that's hardly a "new, fresh idea." More than half a century ago in Brooklyn NY's P.S. 107, I was force-fed a steady diet of patriotic songs.

Every morning began with the Pledge of Allegiance and "My country 'tis of thee/Sweet land of liberty/Of thee I sing." At Friday assemblies we further gilded that lily (following a reading from the Bible) with choruses of Hail Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and You're a Grand Old Flag.

I remember particularly a WWI-era rouser favored by my blue-rinsed teachers: A musical setting of Edgar Guest's "A Patriotic Wish:

I'd like to be the sort of man the flag's supposed to mean,
The man that all in fancy see wherever it is seen,
The man that all in fancy see wherever it is seen,
I'd like to be the type of man that really is American,
I'd like to be the type of man that really is American,
That is A—mer—i—can!
With head held high and shoulders square,
Clean-minded fellow, just and fair,
That all men picture when they see
The glorious banner of the free
The glooooooorious baaaaaanner of the free!

I remember this so clearly because the second line's obtuse grammar baffled me. I thought "all in fancy" was some kind of military decoration.

Because morality plays require villains, countering this square-shouldered all-American hero was the cold war era's devil incarnate, the Red Menace of Communism. Indeed, these elderly spinster pedagogues so convinced me of Communists' Fu Manchu-like reach, that, instead of monsters, I worried about "Reds" hiding under the bed.

These fears weren't unfounded, according to 1964's ur-text of anti-communist paranoia, "None Dare Call it Treason." Nothing, it seems, was too insignificant to be employed by these agents of menace:

"The brainwashing starts in the first grade. Recall the story…about the hard working little squirrel who gathered and stored nuts for the winter…that story has been rewritten. The new version is entitled, Ask for It. In it…Bobby Squirrel didn't like to work, [so] he ignored the advice [to store nuts]. Winter came and…Bobby…got awfully hungry but remembered that a boy who lived in a white house had taken some of the nuts…Bobby went to the white house…A door opened and a 'fine brown' nut' rolled out. Bobby learned….'All I have to do is ask for it.'"

I don't remember this story. In the first grade we read about Alice and Jerry and their dog, Jip. "Look, Alice, look. Jip can run. See Jip run. Jip likes to run." Then again, Alice and Jerry seemed to have a lot of unsupervised time on their hands. Could it be, they were being raised by Bobbie – aka Karl Marx – the Squirrel?

No doubt some readers wish for a return of these "good old days." However, as they say, be careful what you wish for.

The generation that grew up reciting the pledge of allegiance daily and singing "I'd like to be the sort of man the flag's supposed to mean" in the 1950s also invented the 1960s: Beatlemania, the sexual revolution, Stonewall, bra-burning, the anti-war movement, SDS, Woodstock, and "Turn on, tune in, drop out."

Now pass that doobie over here. 


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LOL! You were lucky! In 5th grade we had a music teacher (music class consisted of singing along with whatever music the teacher picked out in preparation for some holiday/patriotic program that was coming up - the details are fuzzy) who was steeped in the music of WWI and WWII. We learned "The Rose Of No-Man's Land," and "Comin' In On A Wing and A Prayer."

I kind of wish she'd taught us "Lili Marlene," and "Mademoiselle from Armentiers," but my dad taught me those. ;-)