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Oh Say, Can You Sing Our National Anthem? Should We Get A New One?

"The Star-Spangled Banner" is notoriously difficult to sing, and those lyrics aren't easy to remember. Should we adopt a new anthem?

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 its existence. So it’s not heresy to suggest that perhaps a new song might be in order.

There are four stanzas to “In Defence of Fort McHenry,” the original poem by Francis Scott Key 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 Key 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).

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 Britain, 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.

Do you think we need a new national anthem? If so, what song would you choose? Tell us in the comments. 

Jeff Mark July 05, 2012 at 04:54 PM
I would definitely vote for "This Land..." Neil Young has a killer rendition on his new album "Americana". I'll tell you something that makes me uncomfortable, tho, and that's the exaltation, in the wake of September 11, of "God Bless America". It was bad enough when Harry Carey turned Baseball's "7th-inning stretch" from an opportunity to, well, stretch into a ritual with increasingly obligatory sing-alongs of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game", but since 9/11, more and more it's been replaced by "God Bless America", complete with people saluting (by putting their hands over their hearts). Folks, "God Bless America" is not the national anthem, and is not entitled to that level of respect. It's a martial, lyrically drippy, over-sentimentalized appeal by Irving Berlin that Jews can be real Americans too, a reaction to the anti-Semitism of the between-wars period. It was also used in the 50s and 60s as a metaphorical bludgeon against critics of McCarthyism and of the Vietnam War. Maybe we can get Neil to sing "This Land..." during this year's playoffs...
10dB July 05, 2012 at 06:24 PM
Couldn't agree more, at least with respect to the Star Spangled Banner being a poor national anthem. Lemme see: It celebrates an obscure battle, it glorifies war (do we really want to do that?), the tune is not only hard to sing but comes from a British drinking song, etc, etc. Although few know more than the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner, there are four verses to it. And consider that fourth verse, which includes the phrase: "then conquer we must, if our cause is just!" Huh? Not "defend ourselves," but conquer! And who determines if "our cause is just?" The likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld? This Land is Your Land -- great song, but not appropriately musically magnificent. My vote would be for America -- serene but great, not celebrating a battle but asking for God's blessing on our great country.
virgo July 05, 2012 at 08:16 PM
I agree on the Star Spangled Banner. I can't sing it and can never remember the words. I do not want our national anthem having anything with god in it though so, for me, America and God Bless America are not anything I would vote for. We are a country where people are free to believe any religion they want or no religion at all. Not everyone has the same god, some have more than one and some have none at all so I think it is inappropriate to have a national anthem asking for god to bless America or having his grace shed on us. I like This Land Is Your Land. I think it would make an excellent national anthem.
Jeff Mark July 05, 2012 at 08:53 PM
I'm intrigued by your comment "appropriately musically magnificent". I think I know what you mean, but I don't know that I would make it a criterion. I'm pretty sure many countries eschew the near-bombastic; "Hatikva", the Israeli Anthem, is actually fairly mournful (not surprisingly, I suppose). "America the Beautiful" (I think actually, "America" is the song also called "My Country, 'Tis of Thee") is such a gorgeous song, tho, and the lyrics evoke such wonderful — and nature-oriented — images, that I'd be willing to give it a pass on the "God" references, although I feel much like virgo does. It also, btw, has seven verses that nobody knows about, and if you read it, it comes off as one of those 19th-Century "Saturday Evening Post" poems, like "Casey at the Bat". Still... I'd go for "Stars & Stripes Forever", if it had lyrics other than "Be kind to our web-footed friends..."
T A Donahue July 05, 2012 at 10:04 PM
I cannot agree. ""The Star-Spangled Banner" is notoriously difficult to sing, and those lyrics aren't easy to remember." Yeah, seems appropriate; lets dumb down the National Anthem like everything else. And as for the "... stretch and stab (of) those high notes with soul-like stylings...", They will multiply logarithmically will an easier to sing anthem.

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