Country songwriter Tim McGraw and presidential historian Jon Meacham reflected on protest music and musical patriotism on Tuesday’s Late Show. During the interview with Stephen Colbert, which promoted their new book, Songs of America, they highlighted the intriguing ambiguity of Johnny Cash’s song “Ragged Old Flag,” which balances overt sentimentality with an amorphous anger.
“He did it in 1974 — of course Nixon’s resignation, Vietnam,” Meacham said, calling it the protest song most applicable to modern-day America. “He talks about how the flag’s been scandalized and disrespected. So you sit there and think, ‘Well, wait, is he talking about the protestors, or is he talking about the folks who lied us through Vietnam and lied us through Watergate? The great thing about that song is you can project whatever perspective you are.”
Earlier in the interview, Meacham joked about the “patriotic plagiarism” of early American songs like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” which placed new lyrics over existing, often British melodies. McGraw, meanwhile, offered a hopeful message about the endurance of national “optimism” — from John Dickinson’s “The Liberty Song” in 1768 through the protest songs of the 1960s. “You get to those [later] songs and you start seeing a direct correlation back to those original songs,” he said.
Meacham ended the segment with what sounded like a thinly veiled critique of the Trump administration. “We’re at our best when we try to live up to what Jefferson wrote — that we’re all created equal,” he said. We don’t build monuments to people who build walls and shut doors. We build monuments to people who take them down and open them, right? And patriotism and protest are the wings two that enable us to take flight.”