We Need a New National Anthem

By Michael Kinsley
Friday, June 12, 2009

In the Age of Karaoke, more people (including me) like to join in the singing when they strike up the national anthem at public occasions. No one can stop you, no matter how embarrassed she might be by your obvious lack of talent. It's always disappointing when you're invited to stand and enjoy some high school glee club or famous opera singer. But chances are that even the opera singer won't get it right.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" is notoriously unsingable. A professor of music, Caldwell Titcomb of Brandeis, pointed out years ago in the New Republic that its melody spans nearly two octaves, when most people are good for one octave, max. The first eight lines are one enormous sentence with subordinate clauses, leaving no really good place to take a breath. There are far too many mandatory leaps off the high board (". . . what so PROU-dly we hail . . .").

The melody is lifted from an old English drinking song. The lyrics are all about bombs and war and bloodshed -- and not in a good way. By the penultimate verse, the song has turned really nasty: "No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave." In the first verse -- the one we generally sing -- there is only one reference to any value commonly associated with America: "land of the free." By contrast, "home of the brave" is empty bravado. There is nothing in the American myth (let alone reality) to suggest that we are braver than anyone else.

No, "The Star-Spangled Banner" has got to go. The only question is, What should replace it? Here we have an embarrassment of riches. Let's review some of the candidates.

The unimaginative, easy choice would be "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," a.k.a. "America" -- as if applying for the job, since the word "America" isn't even in it. Case for: The melody is simple, familiar and easy to sing, with a range of less than an octave. The lyrics express American sentiments, by and large, though with no particular flair. Case against: The tune is a rip-off of "God Save the Queen," and as insipid as the lyrics to boot.

"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has a range of one octave exactly, and beautiful, inspiring lyrics. A bit martial, of course, but in reference to our nation's greatest cause rather than mindless nonsense about rockets and bombs. A bit religious, too, but probably not unconstitutionally so if "one nation, under God," passes muster in the Pledge of Allegiance. Written by Julia Ward Howe during the Civil War to supply something more wholesome for Union soldiers to sing to the tune of "John Brown's body lies a-moulderin' in the grave," it is already used sometimes at liberal occasions as a substitute for "The Star-Spangled Banner." Even at this late date some Southerners might object. But hey -- who won the war?

The best of the conventional choices would be "America the Beautiful." Its range is an octave plus one note, with a couple of tricky leaps ("Uh-MARE-i-cah, America"). But the tune is lovely, and the lyrics are eloquent and almost eerily appropriate in their humility. ("Confirm thy soul in self-control/Thy liberty in law.")

What about Irving Berlin's "God Bless America"? The lyrics are more enthusiastic than eloquent. There is nothing so wonderful about our oceans being "white with foam." But it's a tuneful tune, not only easy to remember but hard to get out of your head. It might seem tough to argue that "God Bless America" is not a religious sentiment, potentially violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment. But the song is so jolly and un-hymn-like that I am confident some professors at our finer law schools could make the case. (You see? That tune just fills you with American optimism and energy.) As this column has pointed out, in our political culture the phrase "God bless America" has come to mean little more than "I'm through with my speech. See you later."

Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" out of annoyance at the popularity of "God Bless America." The melody has a range of just seven notes, which is hard to beat. The lyrics can be treated as either a generalized appreciation of the American landscape or a more pointed political claim for equality ("This land was made for you and me"). There's no question which one Guthrie had in mind. He was a communist fellow-traveler. But the song has been absorbed into our culture and is loved even by Republicans who have no idea about its origins.

How about Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA"? A bit dark for a national anthem, I suppose. The Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts" (turned by Aaron Copland into a theme in "Appalachian Spring")? Have I left out your favorite? Nominations are welcome. Anything would be better than those "bombs bursting in air."


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