As the Fourth of July approaches many people (including myself) might pause and reflect on the state of our nation, its ideals and other associated topics. While I realize that there are many issues that our country is facing that might be more important than this particular issue I wanted to write about it today because as a musician I do think it bears some discussion.
Before we discuss the question of whether we should change the national anthem, we might want to ask a more important question. What should the purpose of a national anthem be? There might be many different opinions on this topic (and you can feel free to discuss them in the comments below). Wikipedia defines a national anthem as “a generally patriotic musical composition that evokes and eulogizes the history, traditions and struggles of its people, recognized either by a nation’s government as the official national song, or by convention through use by the people.” From this definition we can say a national anthem should pay homage to the history of country and should be agreed upon (and hopefully sung) by the people. I would also add that a national anthem could also celebrate features of the country (purple mountains majesty) as well as the country’s deeper ideals and principals (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc.)
This brings us to our current national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The lyrics of the song were written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key who had witnessed the Battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 (Wikipedia). However, while the song certainly has history in spades and tradition on its side, (not to mention a jaw dropping version by Jimi Hendrix) there are several points that can be held against it. First, the tune is from an old British drinking song which might not be the best for an anthem that should ultimately have an American flavor (Kinsley). Furthermore, many musicians and critics have stated the song is incredibly hard to sing. Among those voices was music professor Caldwell Titcomb who pointed out that the melody spans two octaves when most people can only sing one and the structure of the song leaves very little room to take a breath (Ibid). Finally the lyrics themselves really only celebrate the flag with the rest of the song devoted to bombs, battles and the death of enemies which frankly is a bit of a downer and given the past several years is probably not the message we want to give to the world about who we are as a nation.
So if not “The Star Spangled Banner” what should we have in its place? While I’m sure there could be many interesting ideas (again feel free to share in the comments) most musicians and writers on the subject tend to boil it down to four main contenders so let’s examine each of these songs with the earlier discussed criteria in place (easy to sing, well liked, pays tribute to history, celebrates country’s features and/or ideals).
America the Beautiful: This song has been commonly held up as the most likely candidate to replace current national anthem and frankly it’s understandable as to why. The song was composed by Katherine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College who was apparently overcome by the beautiful landscape at Pike’s Peak in Colorado (Wirzbicki). Most people are aware of those lyrics that are a testament to the country’s beauty which covers the features category but Bates also delved into history on verses two and three with references to the pilgrims and the patriots who gave their lives. The final verse looks to future (O Beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years) which is a nice structural touch to end the song. Meanwhile, the message of brotherhood as well as the lyric God mend thine ev’ry flaw are touching sentiments (the latter being a reminder that we don’t always get it right but we do eventually try to make it that way). As for musicality it is slightly easier to sing then “The Star Spangled Banner” being for the most part within one octave (although there are a couple of leaps that might be tricky) (Kinsley). As a musician I feel music has a very good balance of simplicity and complexity–enough simplicity so a child or children’s choir can sing it but enough complexity so that experienced musicians wouldn’t get bored and could create interesting harmonies and interpretations. With all of this “America the Beautiful” certainly seems to be the main contender though it does have its critics. Alfred Gingold of Slate argued that the song fails “The Casablanca Challenge” i.e. could we really show up the Nazis at Rick’s Bar singing about “Amber Waves of Grain? (Wirzbicki)”
God Bless America: This song would probably pass Gingold’s “Casablanca Challenge” and emerged after 9-11 as the patriotic tune of choice (Wirzbicki). The song was written in 1918 by composer Irving Berlin and was revised by him in 1938 (Wikipedia). Interestingly the song features a Tin Pan Alley format with an introduction and a verse (though the introduction is almost always left out in most renditions). The lyrics certainly commemorate the country’s beauty though there isn’t much in regards to history and with the exception of a line in the introduction “Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free” there really isn’t much about the principles or ideals of the country. The song is certainly tuneful though. The range is slightly over an octave which might make it harder to sing for some. However, while the song definitely has its supporters, some might balk at what could seem to be the overwhelming presence of the divine (which in a nation that is based on separation of church and state should be considered). Moreover, although Berlin revived the song in 1938 as a “peace song,” over the years it has been appropriated by certain elements of society with a view of nationalism bordering on jingoism which has left a bad taste for many.
My Country Tis of Thee (aka America): Written by Samuel Francis Smith, “My Country…” does have certain elements that allow the place on the list of contenders. The melody is less than an octave and easy to sing (Kinsley). The lyrics have plenty of references to the history, features, and ideals of America. However there are several strikes that can be made against it. First, the tune is ripped off from the British National Anthem “God Save the King” which aside from not being a uniquely American tune seems ironic at best and inappropriate at worst. Furthermore the song’s lyrics go where others have gone before and have done much better. (On a personal note even as a kid I hated this song in comparison with other patriotic numbers and I have to agree with Michael Kinsley’s assessment of the song as fairly insipid.)
This Land Is Your Land: This song could be said to be the dark horse of the competition (though it is certainly a favorite of mine). The song was composed by folk musician Woody Guthrie in 1940. In an ironic twist, it was composed as a response to “God Bless America” which Guthrie felt was unrealistic and complacent (Wikipedia). While there is not much history to be found, the lyrics certainly celebrate the beauty of the country. However it is on the subject of ideals things get interesting. Unlike “God Bless America” which pledges to support and defend the country Guthrie pledges the power of America to the people (Phull, 23). The very title of the song seems to speak to ideals of equality and (even more radically) of common ownership of the land (Kinsley)(Shumway, 133). This perspective is only made clearer when we consider the two often omitted verses of the song. The first references a wall with a private property sign that is blank on the other side leading Guthrie to say “That side was made for you and me.” The second verse discusses the impoverished people that make Guthrie wonder “was this land made for you and me?” The music in turn reflects the populist sentiments of the song as Guthrie’s only requirement was that the tune could be easily sung and played by anyone (Jackson, 20). He achieved his goal as the melody only consists of seven notes within an octave (Kinsley). Of course some might consider the music to be fairly pedantic. In fact the tune is not completely original as Guthrie probably snagged it from the folk song “When the World’s On Fire.” Furthermore, there are those who might take the more populist sentiments of the song as “un-American.” With this in mind it would be hard to say whether the song could withstand the criticism to be the national anthem.
So I turn it over to you. Do you like one of these four contenders? Do you think we should keep “The Star Spangled Banner?” Would you pick a song I haven’t listed? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Bibliography and Works Cited
“God Bless America.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 07 Mar. 2014. Web. 03 July 2014. .
Jackson, Mark Allan. “Is This Song Your Song Anymore; Revisioning ‘This Land Is Your Land’” Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie. Diss. Louisiana State University, 2002. 13-48. PDF.
Kinsley, Michael. “We Need a New National Anthem.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 12 June 2009. Web. 03 July 2014. .
“My Country ‘Tis of Thee (America) (lyrics Only).” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 July 2014. .
“National Anthem.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 June 2014. Web. 03 July 2014. .
Phull, Hardeep. Story Behind the Protest Song. Westport Conneticut, London: Greenwood Press, 2008. 21-25. Print.
Shumway, David. “Your Land: The Lost Legacy of Woody Guthrie.” Hard Travelin’ The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie. Ed. Robert Santelli and Emily Davidson. Hanover, NH Wesleyan University Press, 1999. 128-137. E-book.
“The Star-Spangled Banner.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 07 Mar. 2014. Web. 03 July 2014. .
Stiehm, Jamie. “Can We Please Change Our National Anthem to ‘America the Beautiful?'” NJ.com. N.p., 03 July 2014. Web. 03 July 2014. .
Wirzbicki, Alan. “Do We Need a New National Anthem?” Boston.com. The New York Times, 07 Feb. 2011. Web. 03 July 2014. .