I’ve been riding around the country on a bus for six weeks, doing a dog-and-pony show that, among many other things, included me walking into the crowd and humming a note and the audience singing, a cappella, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty” and singing very well, sometimes awfully well, and if so, we swung into “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Love Me Tender” and two verses of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” including the one about sounding forth a trumpet and the jubilant feet. People had paid $40 to see the show but they were not disappointed to be the show. It was a beautiful thing.
In Baltimore, at an open pavilion in the Inner Harbor, not far from where Francis Scott Key wrote the words, a couple thousand people stood and sang the national anthem in the key of A, with gusto, the sopranos floating up high over “O’er the land of the free.” Everyone knew it except a few teenagers who Googled the lyrics on their iPhones.
I didn’t need to wave my hands or sing loud — I sang a quiet low bass. The crowd was astonished by how good they sounded, no help from me. People who were too cool to sing were prodded by spouses and got into the spirit of it. The tone-deaf hummed quietly.
What was surprising was the emotion in the crowd. They felt a naked love of country without anybody telling them to. You don’t get this from wearing a flag pin on your lapel, but when you stand in a crowd and sing about the purple mountains and the buffalo roaming and grace that taught my heart to fear and the Red River Valley, roses loving sunshine, singing in the rain and the bright golden haze in the meadow, it does pull people together no matter how they feel about the Second Amendment.
In years to come, this will be gone. We won’t know the words anymore. My daughter’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Ammundson, began each school day with a medley of patriotic tunes, and the kids loved it. That was rare back then and is even rarer now. So the common hymns will simply vanish except among us geezers with our ruined voices. Young people will walk around in the bubble of headphones listening to Etaoin & the Shrdlus and their anthems of alienation and wondering why they feel lousy.
The flag is the flag and hurray for it, but the sight of it is not so moving as being in a crowd singing about the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.
History tells us that when the British attacked Fort McHenry in 1814, they were quite justified. American pirates had operated out of Baltimore Harbor to prey on British cargo ships. The bombardment was their tit for our tat. Key wrote his lines in a fever of righteousness hardly supported by the facts. But over the years, it has become our song, and if we let it become a showpiece for pop singers and ballpark organists, we will lose something precious forever.
The Pledge of Allegiance is a mystery to me, promising fealty to a piece of cloth — and “to the republic for which it stands” — what does that mean? Am I granting my support of gerrymandering, suppression of voting, rivers of campaign cash to buy time on the airwaves that belong to the people? I said the pledge in grade school. I don’t say it anymore. You can’t make me. But I love to sing about the dawn’s early light and the broad stripes and bright stars when I am standing next to other people who are singing it too. I would sing it with the same pleasure if I were standing between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Wayne LaPierre of the NRA. It’s not about them or me, it’s about all of us and our survival.
I went to church in San Francisco on Sunday, and the closing hymn was the one about grace, how sweet the sound, that everyone and their cousin knows. If you put truth serum in the Communion wafer, you might be surprised at the diversity of theological opinion in the pews, but the hymn was there to lace us all back together. My feeling after 28 “My country, ’tis of thee” renditions is that people are longing for that. Enough of the showman. It’s time for some competence on behalf of the common good.
Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.