Readers recommend playlist: your songs about flags

A regular reader picks a playlist from your suggestions, with the Dubliners, KRS-One and British Sea Power among the artists waving flags

Here is this week’s playlist – songs picked by a reader from hundreds of suggestions in the comments on last week’s callout. Read more about how our weekly series works at the end of the piece.

Flags date from antiquity, with one of the oldest extant standards (of sorts) being an Iranian banner made of bronze, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. Their most common use has been to represent geopolitical entities, though they also bring together interest groups and those of a political – or anti-political – persuasion.

The black flag is use as a symbol of anarchism. The skull and crossbones of piracy. A rainbow flag was designed for the gay rights movement. But if a flag itself could talk, what would it say? Beginning our list, Ian Hunter speculates, in Letter to Britannia from the Union Jack, that a flag would ponder all it has seen – watching everything from hangings to parades. And of course, war; something that saddens the flag: “I have fought armies for you in the conflicts of the past / Britannia, I implore you, do not lower me by half.”

Listen to the playlist on YouTube.

Welsh folk group Calan tell of the origins of the Welsh flag, a mythical Tale of Two Dragons that fought a fierce battle. The red dragon won – and was ensconced as the nation’s symbol.

Flags communicate many things – not least the identity of the place that it represents. How one feels about this place can depend on whether one is a patriot or a nationalist. A quote often attributed to Samuel Johnson (or alternatively Sydney J Harris) explains the difference: “A patriot is a man who loves his country, whereas a nationalist is a man who hates everybody else’s country.”

Even punk rockers like the Warriors feel a patriotic pride in England. “We are English folk and we are proud,” they sing.

Perhaps the worst aspect of nationalism is the willingness to blindly follow the flag into war. But as Gary Moore and Phil Lynott note, Out in the Fields it doesn’t matter which side you’re on, whether you’re wrong or right, black or white, left or right, “death is just a heartbeat away. No flag has ever stopped a bullet from a gun.”

This tragedy of war is brought home by Carrie Underwood, as she sings about a funeral for a fallen soldier. Whose fiancée is handed a folded-up flag. Their planned life together is Just a Dream.

The bloodthirsty stupidity of nationalistic fervour is highlighted in a song by the Dubliners about two groups who covet the same flag and claim it as their own. Take It Down From the Mast, sing the radical Irish Republicans, outraged that their opponents who won the Irish civil war brokered peace with England. They’ve brought nothing but shame and ought to leave the flag “to those men who intend to do killing until England’s tyranny cease”.

Red Eye condemns petty nationalism and racism in Little England. The Little Englanders they sing of are the small-minded, anti-immigrant bigots “spoiling for a fight”, the xenophobes who cry that “the jobs here are ours and the women are ours too”.

Rare is the man who can risk life and limb to defy his nation’s flag. But one such man was Richard Parker, an officer who joined a mutiny in 1797 to protest against horrendous working conditions aboard the ships of the British navy. The Colours is sung from Parker’s point of view on his way to the gallows. Inspired by Thomas Paine’s writings, he proclaims his innocence, represented by the white of the Union Jack, the flag he replaced with the Jacobin flag (the red flag of the French revolutionaries). Ironically, the song is sung by the Men They Couldn’t Hang.

Rapper Sage Francis visited Ground Zero five days after 9/11 and Makeshift Patriot describes the scene in graphic detail. But he is wary of the jingoistic patriotism he sees. And he knows that American civil liberties will be curtailed as a result. “Freedom will be defended at the cost of civil liberties,” he raps. “Don’t waive your rights with your flags.”

Very topical today is the controversy over US Confederate flags and Confederate statues. If people could communicate like Brad Paisley and LL Cool J do in Accidental Racist, maybe the violence we see in places like Charlottesville could be avoided. Listen to the lyrics of this song. Rapper KRS-One argues that singling out the Confederate flag is hypocrisy. Slavery was brought to America under the American flag. “Both flags enslaved my sisters and my brothers,” he says. Something to think about.

Let’s end with two uplifting and cheerier songs. British Sea Power wrote Waving Flags, they say, to “counter the antipathy to which eastern European immigrants are often greeted”. “Welcome in,” they sing. The reference to Czech ecstasy could be to either a drug that was popular in the former Soviet bloc country or to the ground-breaking 1933 movie featuring a 15-year-old Hedy Lamarr.

To truly appreciate K.naan’s Wavin’ Flag, you need to know that the Canadian singer was born and raised in Somalia. His early life was idyllic but when civil war broke out when he was 12, he witnessed three friends murdered by an older adolescent gunman. He was almost killed by a live grenade that he tossed away just before it exploded. Fleeing the war-torn country, he and his family settled in New York and eventually settled in Toronto. It puts a whole new meaning to the chorus line: “When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom, just like a waving flag”. Flags can be symbols of hatred and violence, but they can also be symbols of hope and freedom.

New theme: how to join in

The new theme will be announced at 8pm (BST) on Thursday 31 August. You have until 11pm on Monday 4 September to submit nominations.

Here is a reminder of some of the guidelines for readers recommend:


Marco den Ouden

The GuardianTramp

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