Michael Kinsley probably will get a lot of angry e-mail today over his suggestion that the US dump “The Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem, but the idea has floated around for decades. While Kinsley includes some ridiculous objections to the current anthem, such as an abhorrence of “bombs bursting in air” (a factual if poetic recounting of the War of 1812 battle Francis Scott Key witnessed), some of his points are actually salient:
“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.
Yeah, nothing at all. I guess saving Europe from itself without a thought of territorial conquest for ourselves — twice — doesn’t count. Otherwise, though, Kinsley’s got a point, albeit perhaps not a completely persuasive one. The current anthem is so unsingable that we have a succession of celebrities botching it at public events. If I looked, it would probably make a substantial subgenre on YouTube. And since Key’s epic poem, we have written more paeans to the American experience that may or may not suit us better for a national anthem.
Kinsley makes the following suggestions:
- Battle Hymn of the Republic — While this completely American song is a transcendent piece of music, it is just as martial as The Star Spangled Banner (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and comes from the Civil War. Picking that may seem a little bit like triumphalism. Besides, the explicitly Christian references would make it difficult, if not impossible, to pass through Congress.
- My Country ‘Tis of Thee — Besides stealing “God Save The Queen” from the British, it’s a childlike and annoying song, not a lush, inspiring marriage of poetry and music, as is Battle Hymn of the Republic. It will always remind me of the South Park episode, “The Brown Noise”:
- This Land is Your Land – Kinsley points out that Woody Guthrie was a Communist sympathizer, but the song itself is innocent enough. It’s probably a bit too simple and folkish for the kind of inspiration that a national anthem should provide.
- God Bless America — This song used to be considered rather lowbrow, and Kinsley reports that it annoyed Guthrie enough to write “This Land”, which I hadn’t heard before. It’s become a central song for American patriotism, so much so that immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Congress gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court building and sang this song rather than the Star Spangled Banner. It’s easier to sing, the words are easily remembered, and one can even exclaim “Play ball!” at the climax.
- America the Beautiful – Inspiring in a different, almost hymnal way, and again easier to sing than the current anthem. This sometimes gets played in place of the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events.
- Stars and Stripes Forever – This is my suggestion. John Philips Souza wrote this specifically to honor the US. Souza didn’t have the good sense to not write lyrics for it, but thankfully they’re mostly forgotten. Others have added them (“Three cheers for the red, white and blue,” “That duck maybe somebody’s muhhhhh-ther”), and hopefully we could forget those too. It’s already the National March — and without lyrics, we can look forward to the elimination of embarrassing celebrity Karaoke at public events.
Actually, I’d prefer just leaving the current anthem in place, but I’m a traditionalist. What do you think? Cast your vote in the poll: