Watch CBSN Live

Origins Of Patriotic Songs

In a few days, America celebrates the Fourth of July with barbeques and fireworks against a backdrop of familiar songs such as "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America."

While these tunes have been used to celebrate our nation's history and inspire Americans in times of trouble, they also have a unique history of their own.

Ace Collins, author of "Songs Sung Red, White, and Blue," visited The Saturday Early Show with the stories of our most beloved patriotic songs. He says the stories and people behind them are as diverse as America itself, and include teachers, preachers, soldiers and celebrated songwriters.

Collins is the award-winning author of "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas," "Turn Your Radio On," "Lassie: A Dog's Life" and many other nonfiction books.

Here's an excerpt from "Songs Sung Red, White, and Blue":

Abraham, Martin and John

If there was one event that seemed to signify just how tragic the Civil War had been, it was when the president was killed at Ford's Theatre. This action plunged a nation into deep despair and widened the gap between the victor and the loser. This death struck such a deep chord that in the months after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, more than fifty songs were penned trying to capture the incredible sadness that had enveloped the war-scarred country. Yet while scores of these compositions were played in concert halls, churches, and theaters and around the fireplaces of common people, none managed to paint the graphic pain of the moment well enough to become a well-known American folk song or anthem.

It is doubtful that Dick Holler had ever heard any of the songs written about Lincoln's life and death. Yet in the wake of the assassination of another president, John F. Kennedy, Holler, like millions of other Americans, must have relived the details of the tragic deaths of both Lincoln and Kennedy. The parallels seemed uncanny, but in truth the deaths were most closely related by the fact that two men who seemed to have been the moral voices of the moment, men who were strongly loved and deeply hated for firing up incredible passions in their followers, had been struck down in what should have been the greatest moments of their lives.

Holler was not a historian, though he had a love of history. The man's claim to fame would come from writing about an American hero, though the star of his song was a hero of the fictional variety. In 1966, the rock group the Royal Guardsmen took Holler's "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" to the top of the charts. This novelty number, inspired by Charles Schulz's classic comic-strip beagle, was equally enjoyed by old and young alike. If possible, it made Snoopy an even larger star than his bigheaded owner, Charlie Brown. Even as America laughed at his work and Holler deposited royalty checks from record sales, the man and the nation were still troubled by a host of problems plaguing the country -- problems that a humorous song simply could not erase.

Much as Lincoln's death had scarred the United States for more than two decades, when Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, the wound festered in every facet of American society for years. Kennedy's loss left millions questioning every aspect of their lives, right down to the core of their beliefs. The death of the young president was even cited as a factor in the heated debates over integration and civil rights, the rapidly growing division between those who argued over the reasons for American involvement in Vietnam, and the accelerated experimentation with illegal drugs. Americans could not escape the bleakness of the times. The nightly news became a nightmare of disappointment and violence. just when many felt that things could get no worse, another death brought the shocked nation to its knees again.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was at the very least a controversial leader. As the man who jump-started the American civil rights movement, King was also a dynamic speaker whose ideas stirred up deep devotion, as well as deeply rooted fear. While millions of African Americans lined up to support his peaceful marches and demonstrations, the whites who clung to segregation saw him as the most dangerous man in the country. On a bright evening in Memphis, Tennessee, not long after making one of the most famous speeches of his life, King was gunned down on his hotel's balcony. It was April 4, 1968. King's death divided the nation much more deeply than had his life. In many parts of the country, violence erupted, and some areas began to take on the look of a war zone.

Like his older brother, the recently slain president, Robert Kennedy felt a calling to lead his nation. When Lyndon Johnson opted not to run for reelection in 1968, the younger Kennedy stepped in to try to win the role as the leader of the Democrats. When he won the California primary on June 4, 1968, he seemed well on his way to his party's nomination. After a rousing victory speech, he started to leave his hotel headquarters through the kitchen. Amid dirty dishes and late-night workers, the unthinkable happened when another assassin ended the life of the man millions called Bobby. A nation that had once felt so secure now shook and asked, "Who's next?"

In the wake of King's and the younger Kennedy's deaths, Americans began to wonder if every facet of a society that just a decade before had seemed so stable was now falling completely apart. Dick Holler was one of those who were horrified. The songwriter sensed the national mood and saw a bridge that linked the deaths of three recent leaders to Lincoln's. That bridge was the mass of grief and questions that accompanied each death and the fact that the murders were fueled by each of the men's strong and courageous ideas and stands. With these thoughts fresh in his mind, Holler created a song that was uniquely American. It defied description -- if the subject had not been so serious, this song might have been considered a novelty number. It wasn't a protest song, it wasn't an anthem, it wasn't a flag-waving ballad or a gospel standard, yet it contained elements of each of these styles. In just four verses and a chorus, it became much more than just another folk-pop standard.

What Holler's "Abraham, Martin and John" accomplished was to voice the pain and anguish of millions and ask the questions that haunted people all over the world. The song did not give answers, but rather pointed out that the ones who might have had those answers had been needlessly killed.

The foregoing is excerpted from "Songs Sung Red, White, and Blue" by Ace Collins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers.