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Yours for a song: Gene Weingarten rewrites the national anthem

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Singer Christine Lavin performs Gene Weingarten's proposed new national anthem, which sets lyrics about the Bill of Rights to the tune of the "William Tell Overture."

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2011

Last week, I promised you a new national anthem. The first challenge in writing one was to find a tune more appropriate than ours, which was, after all, an old barroom song written by a Brit around the time King George III was impolitely taxing our tea. Plus, the music is so stupidly difficult to sing that getting it right was viewed as a sobriety test, warranting another round of drinks.

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My first choice was something I thought sweetly American: Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna." Alas, it turns out the original lyrics begin this way: "I come fum Alabama wid' my banjo on my knee/I'se gwine to Loo-siana, my true lub for to see." From there, it gets a lot less racially sensitive. So, that was out.

A better choice was the traditional "Oh My Darling Clementine," with which I became smitten after discovering that most of us never learned the original final stanza to this tragic song about a drowned lover. Here it is:

"How I missed her! How I missed her!/How I missed my Clementine!/Then I kissed her little sister/And forgot my Clementine."

So, that was going to be the tune, until I started to write the lyrics, jotting down the best things about America. That's when I realized that they're already compiled in one place. We already have a better national anthem; it's just never been recognized as such. It was a masterpiece written in 1789 by a short man with long hair and black tights. His name was James Madison. I'm talking about the Bill of Rights, those 10 simple guarantees of individual liberty that - unlike any chauvinistic, militaristic, jingoistic, overwrought, self-celebratory song - are truly great.

Cramming the entire Bill of Rights into a containable whole demanded that it be sung in a gallop, and so "Clementine" lost out to Rossini's "William Tell Overture." And if you think it inappropriate that our new national anthem was written by an Italian fop about a Swiss crossbow artist, just put on a Stetson and think about that great Native American Tonto and his masked friend.

Here we go:

The Star-Spangled Paper

Music by Gioacchino Rossini, words by James Madison and Gene Weingarten (Sheet music | Sing your own rendition and share the video)

It's okay if you pray. You can own a gun.

You can say what you may about anyone.

You can meet in the street, you can march and strut.

Been wronged? You can sue his butt.

If you're popped by a cop, then you get a trial.

Army troops won't be cooped in your domicile,

When in jail, if there's bail, it can't be too high.

'Gainst yourself ... you don't testify.

There must be reasonable cause/for cops to seize or touch your junk.

In court, you get to see and hear/their case so it you can debunk.

You'll get a jury of your peers/and even if they throw the book

You won't be tarred or feathered or/be dangled on a butcher's hook.

Just because these/are the rights that we are hereby/to you doling

Doesn't mean you/Don't have others/(for example,/going bowling).

Uncle Sam wants your land? Gotta pay a price!

Just one time for a crime - they can't try you twice.

You can write what you might, no restraint awaits.

Other laws ... are left to the states.

That is all, it is small, but it makes us free

It's a trust that we must keep for liberty.

So, a toast, not a boast, as we raise our cup -

Here's to us ... let's not screw it up.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.

***

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