I am nothing if not a sentimental fool, and also a firm believer in the power and value of traditions. Also, I love my country and definitely believe in showing it the appropriate respect and allegiance. So please don’t take this the wrong way.
But can we please get a new song?
The Star Spangled Banner has had a good run, but it’s only been the official anthem since 1931. The Founding Fathers did not sing it, and our nation has managed to become the great place it is without an official anthem for most of our existence. So it’s not heresy, assumedly, to suggest that perhaps a new song might be in order.
There are four stanzas to “In Defence of Fort McKinley,” the original poem by Francis Scott Keyes from which we take our present anthem, which was inspired by a battle between England and America in 1812. Thankfully, we only sing the first one, and I’m willing to bet most of us struggle to recall those lines. The poem, while inspiring, is a little on the turgid side, and Keyes did not write these words to be sung.
But then there’s that tune. It’s an English melody originally known as “The Anacreontic Song,” that spans an octave and a half and lends itself to be easily sung by hardly anyone. Sure, the song can be rousing when it’s handled by a trained singer, and for the past couple of decades the trend has been to bend, stretch and stab those high notes with soul-like stylings by singers comfortable with such vocal pyrotechnics (and even those singers often struggle with the lyrics).
Other National Anthem Contenders
But what about the rest of us? How about a national anthem with words that speak to our lives today? How many of us feel a true sense of pride over our victory of the British at a fort in Baltimore? Could we perhaps celebrate and sing about the many treasures America has to give? Our heritage and diversity, our beauty and courage and heart? With a melody that the average American can actually sing?
There is “My Country, Tis of Thee,” but again, lyrically it’s full of the kind of English we just don’t speak any more – the clues are right there in the title. And it’s set to England’s national anthem, “God Save The Queen.” Given our history with Great Britan, we should probably come up with our own melody.
How about “America?” This is a solid contender – it’s basically a lovely description of our scenery, and a call to brotherhood. I’ve always wondered about the image of God shedding his grace on us; it’s an odd choice of verb, at least to my ears. But as anthems go, it’s short and sweet and easy to sing, with great imagery and a great message.
“God Bless America,” Irving Berlin’s tribute to America, is another solid possibility. It has a kind of marching feel to it, for those who insist on a martial tone in their anthems. It’s easy to sing, and who doesn’t love a song with the words “my home sweet home” at the end? It’s a line that speaks to just about everyone.
But for my money, I would vote for “This Land Is Your Land.” This song is Woody Guthrie’s answer to Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which Guthrie felt was too stodgy and passive for such a great nation. His song celebrates not only the lay of the land, but the notion that each of us has a stake in it. And, like most Guthrie songs, it has a melody that begs to be sung by just about everyone. It’s a song sung around campfires and nursing homes and classrooms. It’s a feel-good song, warm and comfortable.
For me, The Star Spangled Banner is like a brand new couch in my aunt Hazel’s house that was always covered in plastic – it was for looking at, an ornament more than something to sit on. Whereas “This Land Is Your Land” is, for me, a great overstuffed couch that just begs to be used again and again, comfortable and inviting.
I think the best songs are like that. And maybe, just maybe, we should consider changing our nation’s anthem to one we can all sing along with without risk of hernia.