4 Sad (and Nostalgic) Anthems for the 4th of July

While British friends collectively sigh, “We get it, you won already,” American teenagers will alight bricks of firecrackers in the streets while parades and city fairs offer more professional explosions in the sky, and some version of a once-famous band rocks downtown, aluminum lawn chairs with frayed edges collapse, and barbecue sauce-stained hands wave little flags.

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The Fourth of July is also a useful metaphor for songwriters, including a musician who was part of a very different British Invasion.

This is not a hype list for the federal holiday, but keep it handy when the party’s winding down and firework debris slowly tumbles down the street, moved along by a humid breeze. These four sad Fourth of July anthems will keep you cozy and cool.

Celebrate hard, be safe, and hug your friends and family.

“Fourth of July” by Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens released his heartbreaking masterpiece Carrie & Lowell in 2015 and this tear-jerking anthem is the album highlight. “Fourth of July” is about life’s brevity. Picture the temporary beauty of fireworks in the night sky—they flicker, they burn, they dazzle, then they fade to black. Stevens visited his mother in the hospital before she died and “Fourth of July” is a son saying goodbye.

Well, you do enough talk
My little hawk, why do you cry?
Tell me what did you learn from the Tillamook Burn?
Or the Fourth of July?

“4th of July” by The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys’ independence anthem is a sobering reflection of the ideal meeting reality. Dennis Wilson and Jack Rieley wrote “4th of July” in 1971 but it wasn’t included on the Surf’s Up album. You can find it on the compilation set Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1970. Wilson’s melancholy is likely from the fatigue of the Vietnam War.

In 1983, unrelated to this song, Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt attempted to ban The Beach Boys from performing at a Fourth of July celebration at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. However, then Vice President George H. W. Bush publicly called the group “friends” and First Lady Nancy Reagan apologized on behalf of the White House. The Beach Boys had already booked another gig so President Reagan invited them for another performance at The White House.

Oh, where has it gone
Brothers sisters stand firmly and try
Reaching the spacious skies
Fourth of July

“4th of July” by Paul McCartney and Wings

America’s Independence Day is the perfect fete metaphor for a sad song. McCartney strums an out-of-tune guitar and sings in a weary voice while his friends try to cheer him up. He’s blue from a breakup and outside is a smiling crowd and fireworks and summer. His lonely Fourth of July song is reminiscent of how many Christmas songs are sad. It’s a bonus track on Wings’ fourth album Venus and Mars (1975).

Sunset’s painting up the sky
There’s something in my eye
Why am I crying?

It’s the Fourth of July

“4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” by Bruce Springsteen

As fireworks light up the New Jersey sky, Springsteen pleads for Sandy’s love. He’s tired of chasing those boardwalk girls and he’s looking for something real. Some kind of love that will last. But time is fleeting and he may never see Sandy again. Moved by the shimmering stars and pier lights, Springsteen promises to love Sandy forever. He released The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle in 1973. Two years later his first of many masterpieces would arrive. Sandy better make up her mind, ’cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.

Oh, Sandy, the aurora is risin’ behind us
This pier lights our carnival life on the water
Runnin’, laughin’ ’neath the boardwalk
Ah, with the boss’s daughter

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Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

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