There are so many things about the 4th of July that are familiar — the flags, the fireworks, the barbecues and the patriotic songs we all know (or can flub our way through) the first verse to.

But how well do we really know those songs, and what do the words in those lyrics mean? The patriotic ideal, the love of country — the themes are simple and beautiful. Less clear is what "should auld acquaintance be forgot…" (a phrase normally associated with New Year's Eve) is doing in the old standard You're a Grand Old Flag. The Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem and a staple of sporting events, has a melody that is notoriously difficult to sing and poetic sentences that are, at times, difficult to make sense of.

In this article I will unravel these mysteries and more. Perhaps our patriotism will grow as our confusion about these flag-waving masterworks is cleared up.

For even more words lifted from patriotic song lyrics, check out: Words from the 4th of July Songbook.

You're A Grand Old Flag

Right from the start, You're a Grand Old Flag is clear about its intentions as a song. It is an ode to the flag itself, which is an emblem — a symbol standing for something else, in this case, the country the United States of America. Emblems have been around for centuries, and the word itself dates from the 1580s. Emblem derives from when the word referred to work done on a ship merely for decoration, and comes from the Greek for "to throw in" — the sense being that this ornamental work was done because there was space available to do it — emblems were "thrown in" for free. It was not until the 18th century that emblem came to refer to decorations acting to signify something else — to function as a symbol.

Written in 1906 by American musical pioneer (and July 3rd birthday boy) George M. Cohan, You're a Grand Old Flag quotes another traditional song, Auld Lang Syne, when it says:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.

Usually sung on New Year's Eve, Auld Lang Syne asks questions about whether we should forget old times and old acquaintances, (auld means "old") appropriate thoughts for end-of-the-year reflection. What Cohan is most likely saying by quoting this Robert Burns poem from 1788 is that even if old acquaintances are forgotten, the values the flag stands for will endure, and we, as a people and a country, can always depend on those. Interestingly, in the source poem, "should" begins a rhetorical question, with the sense of "is it right to?" In You're A Grand Old Flag, however, "should" is more correctly interpreted as "if" — a hypothetical statement, not a question anymore.

The Star Spangled Banner

Unlike You're A Grand Old Flag, which explicitly recognizes the flag as a symbol, the Star Spangled Banner tends to ascribe qualities to the flag itself that are perhaps more appropriately bestowed on the people the flag represents, namely those fighting for America defending Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Gallantly, a word Francis Scott Key uses to describe the way the flags streamed, means "heroically" or "bravely" and is about the soldiers doing battle, not the physical flag. Consider what readers (and singers) have to process to understand that it is in fact the flags that are gallantly streaming. The entire first sentence of the poem is:

O say can you see,
by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd
at the twilight's last gleaming
Whose broad stripes and bright stars
through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watch'd
were so gallantly streaming?

The poem repeatedly references something it doesn't explicitly mention until two lines after this sentence — namely the flag. Each thought is about the flag:

O say can you see, (the flag)
by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hail'd (the flag)
at the twilight's last gleaming
Whose (the flag's) broad stripes and bright stars
through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watch'd
were so gallantly streaming?

It is the flag's broad stripes and bright stars that gallantly stream, but you have to go back through a few embellishing phrases to get to a reference to stars and stripes, which leads you to the flag itself. This complexity is not a vice but a virtue, as it suggests that patriotism isn't only about allegiance but also about both a kind of effortful vigilance and questioning when necessary.

Hail is an interjection of cheer and welcome dating back to the 1200s, but it is particularly appropriate used in this context, when the outcome of a battle is uncertain. It is an Old English shortening of wæs hæil, “be healthy” “be whole.” In other words, it is a wish, a kind of prayer, that things turn out alright.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

dandy and macaroni
A man concerned with his appearance, a dandy, would want to be up on the latest trends. It is this desire which leads to the macaroni reference in Yankee Doodle Dandy, also written George M. Cohan. To modern ears, this reference sounds quite odd because the only macaroni that has survived the years is a type of pasta. It turns out that rather than being the foundation of the ubiquitous "mac and cheese", once upon a time macaroni was a fairly exotic dish, and prized by those who valued knowing about current styles. There was even a Macaroni Club in Britain, named after the dish, and it is to the behavior and dress of those in this club that the Yankee Doodle lyric probably refers.

America the Beautiful

Majesty comes ultimately from Latin magnus, meaning "great, large, abundant, of considerable value and strong". These adjectives are certainly appropriate for the purple mountains they describe in America the Beautiful. Of course, majesty is usually a word used to describe a ruler with a title, like a king or queen, and it is telling that in a land without a monarchy, this honor is bestowed on the bounty of nature that can be found within the United States.

Grace is defined as "love" or "compassion," and as "pardon and favor," especially of a divine presence. The author of the poem on which the song is based, Katharine Lee Bates, is so overcome by looking at Pike's Peak in Colorado (which is said to look purple, hence "purple mountains majesties") that she follows the description of the beauty by invoking the grace of God. But, as linguist Geoff Pullum has shown, (Far from the Madding Gerund, pg. 83-86) "God shed his grace on thee" isn't a statement about something that happened in the past. We know this because the full phrase is:

God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood

If this entire thought were in the past tense, the second verb form would be crowned. This whole phrase is in an archaic form of the subjunctive. The past and subjunctive forms of shed just happen to be the same. The phrase is a hope and a wish for America. The poem was written in 1895, but this form is much older, with similar forms being found in constructions like "So be it" and "Long Live the Queen". Like Francis Scott Key before her, Bates is offering up a kind of prayer for her country.

Like America itself, the songs that celebrate this country can be complex. Not knowing the lyrics or what they mean doesn't disqualify you from participating in a rousing 4th of July sing-along, but traditions are deepened if you have an undertsanding of them. Traditions also gain value because we keep doing them, and we keep doing them in groups that become bound together by the act of keeping the traditions themselves alive. While it's nice to know what you are singing about this Fourth of July, what matters just as much is that these songs are sung aloud with other voices.