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As Patriotic Songs Lose Familiarity In Public Schools, Do They Still Hold Value?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For over 200 years, we've been celebrating the Fourth of July with fireworks, parades and patriotic music, songs like "America The Beautiful" and "This Land Is Your Land." But Judith Kogan reports that more and more Americans are finding it kind of hard to sing along.

JUDITH KOGAN, BYLINE: To feel the full impact of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, it helps to know the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, African-American spirituals and a certain song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, my country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing, land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims' pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

KOGAN: In 1963, when King delivered that iconic speech, every American schoolchild recognized those words because, almost everywhere, the school day began with the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of a patriotic song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

KOGAN: We're a different nation now. And in many American public schools, kids no longer sing these songs.

I'm going to name a whole bunch of songs. And you can tell me whether you know them - yes, no, maybe.

I'm in the hallway outside the music room at the Burr Elementary School in Newton, Mass., talking to fourth-graders.

"Take Me Out To The Ballgame"?

UNIDENTIFIED #1: Yep.

KOGAN: "Star-Spangled Banner"?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Mm-hm.

KOGAN: "My Country 'Tis Of Thee"?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Nope.

KOGAN: "This Land Is Your Land"?

UNIDENTIFIED #2: No.

KOGAN: "God Bless America"?

UNIDENTIFIED #3: No.

KOGAN: "America The Beautiful"?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: No.

KOGAN: Across town at Newton North High School, music teacher Adam Grossman says 50 years ago, when he was a kid...

ADAM GROSSMAN: They weren't songs you listened to. They were songs you sang. Everyone sang them. They were things you sang together.

KOGAN: We become a community when we sing together, says Harvard ethnomusicologist Kay Kaufman Shelemay. And it makes us feel better.

KAY SHELEMAY: There is an emerging literature that is suggesting in a very overt way that singing together actually does make a difference. And I would say, too, we know, simply from our own experience, that to sing can be transformative.

KOGAN: And that was the point when these songs were introduced into the public schools in the 19th century, says E.D. Hirsch. He's emeritus professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.

E D HIRSCH: All the early thinkers about the schools in the United States felt that everybody should know about the ideals of freedom and toleration because it was felt that you could build a nation on those new Enlightenment ideas.

KOGAN: In 1987, Hirsch wrote a best-seller called "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know." He listed 5,000 items, 40 of them songs. And of those, nine are patriotic.

HIRSCH: There's got to be a sense - well, there is something that joins us as a community. You, as a Democratic, and I, as a Republican, do not belong to different tribes. The country was instituted to overcome this tribalism. So the sense of that larger community is where the patriotic songs come in. We share these songs, these hymns (laughter), so to speak.

KOGAN: He feels they're especially important to sing in our currently polarized times. But they also present problems. Some mention God or bombs bursting in air. They can reflect a time and place very different from the United States of today. And Katie McIntosh, who teaches music at Newton's Mason-Rice Elementary School, says asking everyone in her class to sing these songs begs another question.

KATIE MCINTOSH: Why aren't we representing other countries? Why aren't we singing the national anthem of this country and this country and this country? Because we're diverse and we accept everyone.

KOGAN: But she says there's also a fundamental reason to teach these songs.

MCINTOSH: What's interesting is when I have introduced these songs - when I introduced "America," they love it. They love it. And they will walk out the door singing it and come in the door singing it. So they love it just as much as the pop music.

KOGAN: And of the Fourth of July, if the marching band plays it, they'll be able to sing along. For NPR News, I'm Judith Kogan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.