“We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” read the accompanying tweet.
The other new tune is actually quite an old one. In July, it was revealed that throughout Week 1, in addition to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” games would be preceded by a live or recorded performance of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” — a song written in 1899 by brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, and often referred to as the Black national anthem.
“Lift Ev’ry Voice” has had a place in the hearts and hymnals of Black churches and communities for well over a century, but it has found a resurgent public presence in recent years at protests going back to the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. It also experienced a mainstream moment of sorts when Beyoncé featured it prominently in her 2018 “Homecoming” show at Coachella and the Grammy-winning 2019 Netflix film that documented it. (My personal favorite recent version comes from the bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who sang it at Harvard University’s 2019 commencement.)
The sincerity and efficacy of the NFL’s reported week-long gesture of solidarity are fair game for as much scrutiny as one can muster, but I’m at least glad that so many more people will soon be acquainted with this magnificent song.
One, because it’s magnificent — a hopeful yet clear-eyed clarion call to action that urges all who approach it to “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”
And two, because it’s a necessary reminder to a vast American audience that patriotism rings differently in every American’s ears and can spring from unexpected sources.
A curious choice
Last Thursday night, the Republican National Convention wrapped up its see-if-you-can-stop-us satellite festivities on the White House lawn with a 70-minute acceptance speech, a massive display of fireworks and, oddly enough, an aria.
“Nessun Dorma” — the hit single from Puccini’s posthumously completed 1926 opera “Turandot” — introduced guest tenor Christopher Macchio, who appeared on a stage set behind and high above the dais, accompanied by a small group of musicians. On a finale program otherwise predictably festooned with patriotic staples (“God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful”), an “Ave Maria” and a now-compulsory (and unauthorized) take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (albeit one devoid of the close negotiation of smolder and chill demanded by Cohen’s lyrics), it made for a curious inclusion.
At first, it seemed like some sly exercise in crowd choreography: a way to tidily turn everyone on their heels from the fireworks’ red glare and the president’s name bursting in air to face the towering columns of the White House. Then, I wondered whether the selection was just a shady reference to the weeknight fireworks. (“Let no one sleep,” indeed.)
In any case, “Nessun Dorma,” ever a people-pleaser, still felt as out place on the program as Macchio’s sustained A-sharp did at its conclusion (when all of us are in it for the B). But it was in those final few lines that I realized what the aria was doing there in the first place:
All’alba, vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!
That is, “At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!”
I’d never really thought of “Nessun Dorma” as patriotic music (although an aria addressing a sociopathic princess who threatens to slaughter her kingdom if she’s forced to honor a contract doesn’t seem all that distant from our current political milieu). But even without oceans white with foam or amber waves of grain, “Nessun Dorma” made itself useful as an amplifier of incumbent confidence and patriotic swagger.
Patriotism can take many forms: It can be unfurled and flown like a flag. It can be forged and sharpened into a weapon. It can be poured into virtually any vessel and assume its shape. And, as music, it can be airborne, easily transmittable, barely detectable.
An informal Facebook survey of a hundred or so friends asking for pieces of music that resonate with them as “patriotic” (but were not overtly or intentionally so) attracted responses that were all over the place. Among them: Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”; Samuel Barber’s violin concerto; Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”; Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open”; Nina Simone’s “Sunday in Savannah”; “America” by Simon & Garfunkel, by Neil Diamond, by Prince. Oh, and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” (That one was mine.)
Along those lines, NPR’s recent “American Anthem” series examining 50 songs “that have become galvanizing forces in American culture” showcases a similar diversity of what could rightly be called patriotic music. Canonical anthems such as Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are filed alongside such modern compositions as Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Protest songs both expected (Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ”) and not (Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”) rank among songs that capture the country’s struggle to define itself (Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”), live up to its promise (Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”) and embrace the fluidity of American identity (Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”).
Both of these experiments in what counts as patriotic music in 2020 reveal a curious irony: Unity sounds like no such thing.
“Patriotism ain’t no one song,” quipped comedian Roy Wood Jr. in a recent routine wherein he decried “The Star-Spangled Banner” as fundamentally “whack.” “As long as we stand and agree that people died for us to kick it, we can do that to any song. You can do that to Bruno Mars. What’s more American than Bruno Mars?”
But they also reveal that however varied these many musical visions of patriotism may be, they share common concerns: struggle, tension, transition, uncertainty, progress. These are not songs that chant U! S! A! (although Bruce does comes close) so much as walk its roads, fight its wars, bear its burdens.
There’s no shortage of explicitly patriotic pop out there. Most every near-identical track on contemporary country radio finds some opportunity to bask in its purported freedoms. And Lee Greenwood’s evergreen (or red?) “God Bless the U.S.A.” — with its puzzling refrain, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free” — remains a ubiquitous, if obsequious, presence.
But for many, the patriotic spirit is best exemplified by the battles, not the victories: We will fight vs. I will win.
Perhaps that’s why “The Star-Spangled Banner” remains such a battlefield between the much-ballyhooed “both sides” of our polarized culture.
Francis Scott Key’s 1814 lyrics are set specifically in “the dawn’s early light” after the American victory against British forces at the Battle of Fort McHenry. But they are also timelessly situated in the second person. The “you” in the first line instantly implicates each of us across the ages: Whether as witness, participant or benefactor of these battles generations removed, that you remains you.
This open-ended quality is what makes the national anthem’s hallowed cultural ground — where protectors stand and protesters kneel — so easy to fight over and so hard to unite under. And in different interpretations, you can hear different interpretations of patriotism. (For an extreme example, Maya Rudolph’s legendary 2006 rendering/rending of it on “Saturday Night Live” drags the precisely American trope of putting one’s personal stamp on a national anthem to both its logical and absurd ends.)
As one would expect, the anthem featured prominently at both political conventions: On the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention, the newly re-christened Chicks delivered their own trio arrangement (via video triptych) that, to these ears, took a few too many harmonic liberties. The following week, on the third night of the Republican convention, country star Trace Adkins delivered an austere and sensitive a cappella reading with a stillness that was surprisingly moving. Each used the anthem to different ends: Is America something we create or something we preserve?
President Trump, who has had his share of difficulties paying the same respect to the anthem he demands from others, recently warned that “the game is over” if NFL players kneel, and he has also suggested that those who refuse to stand for the anthem should “be Suspended Without Pay” — or perhaps “shouldn’t be in the country.”
The president’s wielding of the anthem as a bludgeon is itself a historical echo. Author Jonathan Rosenberg dedicates a particularly harrowing chapter of his most recent book, “Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War to the Cold War,” to one Karl Muck — the erstwhile esteemed maestro of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose inadvertent failure in 1917 to perform the U.S. anthem at a single concert (due to a couple of missed telegrams) betrayed what many suspected were German loyalties inextricably tied to his heritage. Muck’s offense caused a fast-spreading furor and a worsening cascade of cancellations (both senses).
Muck was banned from venues and entire cities, decried at public assemblies, slandered in the press, pushed out of his job, imprisoned and, in 1919, driven out of the United States, a country he described in a parting interview as “controlled by sentiment that is closely bordering on mob rule.”
But Trump, and those who agree with his sentiments that players should “be happy, be cool,” or that the anthem is no venue for activism, need only read on to its third verse to encounter how racial inequality is sewn into the fabric of the song itself, whether we sing it out loud or not.
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” These lines reference the Corps of Colonial Marines, a unit of Black soldiers who served the British Royal Army in exchange for emancipation.
Months before Kaepernick took his first knee in 2016, the Root’s Jason Johnson presaged the impending storm of #anthemgate with an efficient unpacking of this third verse, as well as its ugly origin story in the context of the War of 1812: “ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ” he wrote, “is as much a patriotic song as it is a diss track to black people who had the audacity to fight for their freedom.”
A similar revelation awaits (albeit in the opposite direction) if you unfurl the whole length of Woody Guthrie’s enduring 1940 alt-anthem “This Land Is Your Land” — itself a diss track of sorts in response to Kate Smith’s then-inescapable performances of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”
Scale your way to the song’s oft-unreached peak in the fourth verse (i.e. the center of the song), and you’ll encounter a jarring intrusion in the natural landscape — “A sign was painted said: Private Property” — that suggests a very different democratic vista (and got Guthrie flagged as a communist).
But is Guthrie’s vision of America any less American than Berlin’s? (Or Jon Bon Jovi’s?) Does “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” address an America that “The Star-Spangled Banner” ignores? Is there one song that speaks (or sings) for us all?
It’s this multiplicity of perspectives that makes America — and what makes America such a tricky chorus to conduct. We often sing the national anthem with the resolve of an answer, but it’s actually a question: There will always be a fight. We’re in one right now. What will we see once the smoke clears?
It remains to be seen when the dawn will come or what it will look like. But we can hear a bit of the future if we’re willing to listen to each other’s songs, which can offer something no single anthem can: Proof through the night.