Nope, none of these songs will do. At a moment when the United States is in the grip of multiple crises — convulsed by debates over racism and injustice, ravaged by a pandemic, with a crumbling economy and a faltering democracy — the very idea of a national anthem, a hymn to the glory of country, feels like a crude relic, another monument that may warrant tearing down. But if we must have an anthem, it should be far different than the one we’ve got now, positing another kind of patriotism, an alternative idea of America and Americanness. It would also be neat if it was, you know, a decent song, which a citizen could sing without crashing into an o’er or a thee, or being asked to pole vault across octaves.
In fact, there is such a song. The song is “Lean on Me.”
Bill Withers’ 1972 soul ballad may seem like a curious choice. It has none of the qualities we associate with national anthems. It’s a modest song that puts on no airs. It speaks in plain musical language, without a trace of bombast, in a tidy arrangement that unfolds over a few basic chords. It doesn’t march to a martial beat or rise to grand crescendos. The lyrics hold no pastoral images of fruited plains or oceans white with foam, no high-minded invocations of liberty or God. “Lean on Me” is a deeply American song — but it’s not, explicitly at least, a song about America.