[In honor of the 4th of July, a series highlighting various historical and cultural contexts for this uniquely American holiday. Leading up to a special weekend post on patriotism in 2022!]
On three evolutions of a classic, complex American phrase.
To my knowledge, the phrase “born on the 4th of July” first appeared in “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (usually known as “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”), a song that first appeared in George M. Cohan’s musical Little Johnny Jones (1904) and became most famous through James Cagney’s performance of it (as Cohan himself) in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In this context, the phrase is a straightforward as it seems, capturing the speaker’s stereotypical all-American identity, an unironic embrace of the mythology that is amplified by every line in Cohan’s song: “I’m glad I am/So’s Uncle Sam”; “Yanks through and through/Red, white, and blue”; “A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam”; and so on. I suppose it’s possible to read the song’s question about this identity—“Oh say can you see/Anything about my pedigree that’s phony?”—as a recognition of its over-the-top embrace of stereotypical patriotism, but I don’t know that anything in the song, musical, or Cohan’s career and work warrants that kind of ironic reading.
At the other end of the irony spectrum is the use of Cohan’s phrase in a searing autobiographical work published in the nation’s bicentennial year: Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (1976). Kovic, a Vietnam veteran turned antiwar protester, was indeed born on July 4th, 1946; but in his memoir that coincidence becomes a multi-layered metaphor for both the myths and ideals that contributed to his volunteering for service during the Vietnam War and the realities and gaps of his experiences in that conflict and upon his return home as a wounded veteran. As he puts it in a new introduction for a 2005 re-issue of the book, “I wanted people to understand. I wanted to share with them as nakedly and openly and intimately as possible what I had gone through, what I had endured. I wanted them to know what it really meant to be in a war, … not the myth we had grown up believing.” While the myths of war about which Kovic writes were no doubt due in part to the very specific, post-World War II context of his birth and childhood, they’ve also been a part of our national mythos since the war with which our nation originated, a connection captured potently by Kovic’s evocation of July 4th.
Oliver Stone’s award-winning 1989 film version of Born on the Fourth of July, adapted for the screen by Kovic himself (along with Stone), certainly represents another evolution of the phrase, one in which it ironically returned to a Cohanesque mainstream popular culture prominence (thanks in no small measure to the film’s breakout performance by its movie star leading man). Yet I want to highlight as well a more recent use of the phrase, one that exemplifies a more detached, less socially critical form of irony. In a middle verse of The Killer’s song “Sam’s Town” (2006), which opens their concept album of the same name, the speaker portrays his family’s iconic American identity thusly: “I still remember Grandma Dixie’s wake/I’d never really known anybody to die before/Red, white, and blue upon a birthday cake/My brother he was born on the fourth of July and that’s all.” Coupled with a preceding line, “Running through my veins an American masquerade,” this verse seems to offer the first steps toward a layered critique of American mythology to complement Kovic’s. Yet while the remainder of Sam’s Town is engaging rock and roll, socially or historically aware it is not—and indeed, the band’s frontman Brandon Flowers critiqued Green Day’s American Idiot album and tour for attacking America. [Although, as I’ve highlighted in this space, one of The Killers’ more recent songs and video is overtly and stunningly political, so they seem to have evolved on this score.] By the 21st century, perhaps, the phrase “born on the fourth of July” has come to capture most fully the cypher that is American popular culture.
Last July 4th context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 4th of July histories or contexts you’d highlight?