I’ve done a rather good job of avoiding controversial topics on this blog, which is amazing considering how many opinions I hold on a wide array of subjects. My hope has been for common sense to prevail and work things out, but I’m about to open a can of worms.
Next week we celebrate our nation’s 240th birthday, and I think it’s an excellent time to bring up something that’s been troubling me for years: The National Anthem. For quick research on the matter, I consulted Wikipedia:
“The Star-Spangled Banner was recognized for official use by the United States Navy in 1889, and by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931 (46 Stat. 1508, codified at 36 U.S.C. § 301), which was signed by President Herbert Hoover. Before 1931, other songs served as the hymns of American officialdom. Hail, Columbia served this purpose at official functions for most of the 19th century. My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, whose melody is identical to God Save the Queen, the British national anthem, also served as a de facto anthem. Following the War of 1812 and subsequent American wars, other songs emerged to compete for popularity at public events, among them The Star-Spangled Banner, as well as America the Beautiful.”
We are a sentimental population, and 85 years is over a third of our nation’s life. I realize there is very little hope in seeing an easier tune replace the one we see and hear performed at every sporting event, but it has always bothered me that a soloist is selected to sing something, which has been proven too difficult for the average person. Whenever the anthem is performed, most of us stand mute like pre-Vatican II Catholics having something sung FOR us when every American should take an active part in this particular expression of patriotism if he or she chooses.
The accepted passivity may have something to do with the fact that The Star-Spangled Banner has a range of over an octave and a half, which is why Lady Gaga is one of the few people to perform it well. At each performance, the nation holds its collective breath, hoping for perfection. In most cases, the true melody must be altered in order for singers to escape personal shame. Alterations can range from dropping octaves to the incorporation of wild melisma to navigate a minefield of music. You know it’s impossible for the average citizen to sing it when professional singers must rearrange it to get through a single stanza.
My other complaint about the current anthem is the text itself. Most people don’t seem to notice that The Star-Spangled Banner is about the flag. A national anthem should be about the nation. Broad stripes and bright stars gallantly streaming is a beautiful image, but spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties and fruited plains evoke images of the land itself, and proven heroes and infinite dreams of patriots who love their country tug at your heart (or at least mine) in ways that red glaring rockets and bursting bombs do not.
I rather like singing of gleaming alabaster cities in a nation striving for refinement until “all success be nobleness,” which is why I nominate the song I feel to be the logical choice: America, the Beautiful. With its range of a little more than an octave, and a bass line organists prefer over the current anthem, the strophic nature of composition provides comfortable repetition for singers, increasing the likelihood that sports fans and crowds at other events will join in singing, thereby taking an active role in patriotism.
In other words, wouldn’t it be nice to hear a stadium filled with thousands of voices singing a beautiful tribute to their country—and some of them singing in harmony? How nice it would be to see our athletes at the Summer Olympics singing the anthem all the way through the medal ceremonies rather than giving up when they reach the high notes, which they must feel are more difficult than the high jump.
To even mention changing the anthem will likely elicit comments from every direction, and I know that tradition and sentimentality weigh heavily, but I believe a positive change is something to consider. The issue doesn’t take priority over poverty, national security and pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey, but in my mind I think all this talk about “unifying the nation” could begin with singing together “from sea to shining sea.”
© 2016 by Patrick Brown
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