Tuesday, April 7, 2009

So, about that "national anthem" thing...

I don't know what got me started, but I was thinking yesterday what a horrible song we've got for our national anthem. I mean, "The Star Spangled Banner" has its time and place in American history, but we can do much better.
Seriously, consider
And the rockets' red glare
and bombs bursting in air
gave proof through the night
that our flag was still there

With all respect to Mr. Key, it may capture some moment of hope and inspiration, but it hardly reflects any sort of great national spirit. The whole song comes across as kind of shocked that America is still standing at the end of the battle.
And what about the rest of the time, when we're not being bombarded by our sworn mortal enemies, the British (oh yeah, about that too... that whole First Lady/Queen of England bonding thing, ixnay on the ightingfay the itishBray).

How about "America the Beautiful" with its amber waves of grain and purple, majestic mountains and all? That's always been considered a runner up, and, rather than the martial panic of the current choice it asks that the Almighty "crown thy good with brotherhood." Brotherhood? Sounds nice to me.

But if we're looking for a rousing, military song we've got no shortage of candidates. The Civil War alone produced a bunch of fine material. The best known of the lot, of course, is "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which, sadly, has been reduced too often to scmaltzy background music. The song was written as an abolitionist anthem, and Julia Ward Howe left no question of how she felt about slavery:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea
with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me
as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free...

"As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free?" She wasn't messing around when she wrote that, was she? Think about it in context for a minute, men marching off to war to fight for the Union and the abolition of slavery, with those words on their lips. Imagine them, muddy, battered and exhausted, belting that out as they trudged ever onward. Glory, glory hallelujah.

Of course, it is an explicitly Christian song, but if you're going to take God with you to the battlefield, this is how to do it in style:

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemner, so with you my grace shall deal;
let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel
since God is marching on"

Because of its heavily Christian imagery, I can't see it making the perfect National Anthem, sadly. I just hold it up as an example of how much more meaty you can make a patriotic song. The same diversity of belief and culture that removes "Battle Hymn" from the running, though, is one of our country's great strengths, and should be celebrated if we ever decide to pick a new song (possibly one that people can actually sing without professional training).

Which brings us to Woody Guthrie. In 1940 our own national troubadour penned "This Land is Your Land" in response to what he felt was the too-complacent "God Bless America." Guthrie wanted us all in, "from California to the New York Islands." The lyrics celebrate the broad, open and somewhat anarchic potential of the country. My favorite verse, which is seldom taught in elementary school:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
And, unlike some of the other songs, it doesn't speak of the flag or the institutions and symbols of America, it speaks of "this land" and the people who live on it.

These are just a few ideas. There are so many great songs out there, so why are we stuck with the voice-cracking blather we have? Think about that next time you go to the ball park.


Laurence Shatkin said...

You got the Woody Guthrie line wrong. The sign says "Private Property." That's much more explicitly radical than "No Trespassing."

Matt DeBlass said...

I wasn't sure myself, so I pulled the lyrics from www.woodyguthrie.org, and it was "no trespassing" there.
I've heard it both ways, when performed by other artists.