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Thursday, July 4, 2013

Should "The Star-Spangled Banner" Be Our National Anthem?

Diane Ravitch posted the lyrics to "America, The Beautiful" this morning in celebration of Independence Day. That sparked a debate in the comments about the relative merits of various patriotic songs, and whether any would serve us better than "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the National Anthem.

Let me weigh in here as a music teacher on some of the choices:

The Star Spangled Banner

Pros: As far as I know, no other nation uses this melody for its national anthem. The story of Francis Scott Key's visit to the British flagship during the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 is a compelling tale. I've always liked that the anthem ends in an evocative question: is the flag still waving? That's led to some wonderful discussions with my students over the years about patriotism, the power of symbols, and the meaning of the flag.

Cons: It really is impossibly hard to sing: an octave and a fifth, and the highest notes land on really bad vowels ("glare," "free" - yuck). And too often, it's performed in B-flat, which makes the highest note F, which is just way, way too high. The lyrics also glorify war a bit too much for me. And that third verse is really dark.

The tune is basically a British drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." It definitely gets easier to sing when you've put away a few pints.

America The Beautiful

 Pros: It really is a beautiful poem with great imagery: "amber waves," "purple mountains majesty," "alabaster cities gleam." And, again, it connects our past with our future: "pilgrims feet, whose stern impassioned stress" leads to "patriot's dream, that sees beyond the years."

Musically, the lyric structure allows a performance with either a duple or triple microbeat, which means it can be done in a variety of styles. There are also a lot of really good harmonic possibilities when you set the melody.

Cons: The range is small - an octave and a second, which is better than "The Star Spangled Banner" -  but that third line can be tricky when you have to jump up to the highest note. The lyrics are awfully God-heavy, which, no matter what you think about it, means lots of people will simply not embrace it.

And, while the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities can lead to genius:

It also allows for musical crimes against humanity:

  Meat Loaf -- BUTCHERS 'America the Beautiful' at Romney Event
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America (My Country 'Tis of Thee)

Pros: An easy, singable melody with a range even the tone-deaf can handle: less than an octave. The first verse is secular, and has some nice imagery: "Let freedom ring" is a metaphor so good, Dr. King wrote his most famous speech around it.

Cons: Do we really want to share the tune of our National Anthem with the Brits? The later verses are, again, God-heavy, and some of the lyrics are frankly a little odd ("I love thy rocks and rills"?). The "'tises" and "thines" and "thees" are anachronistic.

This Land Is Your Land

Pros: Great tune ("O, My Loving Brother"), catchy lyrics, small range - it's built for sing-a-longs. The communal feeling of the melody and the lyrics are exactly what we should want in a national song. Like "America, The Beautiful," it captures the physical beauty of America and puts it in a patriotic context. I always have Ansel Adams's photographs in my head when I sing it.

Cons: There is no way that political conservatives will ever accept this song into the canon of American patriotic music. That "No trespassing" verse goes against everything they believe America stands for. We have enough other stuff we have to fight these people on; do we really want to add this to the pile?

God Bless America

Pros: The story is a bit apocryphal, but Woody Guthrie apparently wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which Guthrie loathed. It's a really interesting melody: all those descending leaps of fifths and sixths, and then that tritone on "oceans." Berlin is easily one of America's most "singable" melody writers, so even though the tune takes all those leaps, it's easy to latch on to.

Cons: In the same way you'll never get the right to agree to "This Land Is Your Land," you'll never get the left to agree to "God Bless America." And leave aside the constant evoking of the deity: the lyrics just aren't as poetic as any of the others. Berlin rattles off the natural features of the country - mountains, prairies, oceans - but he really doesn't evoke any imagery. It's, for me, all a little dry and a little dull, in contrast to that leaping melody.

You're a Grand Old Flag

Pros: Another easy, singable melody from George M. Cohan, who I guess you could say was a mentor to Berlin. It's definitely a feel-good song, and it's got some clever musical moments: the quote of "Auld Lang Syne" is the bee's knees, and that patch of chromaticism on "Never a boast or brag" is unexpected.

Cons: A national song needs some gravity, and it's just not to be found here.

Yankee Doodle

Pros: Just a half-step more than an octave in range, and the melody takes a few interesting turns. The image of "Yankee Doodle" with the feather in his hat is, to me, so American: we're simple, we're plainspoken, and we're proud. I always have great fun every year explaining to my second graders what "With the girls be handy" means.

Cons: The other verses are too tied to colonial times; in fact, the whole song is. Again, it's missing some of the gravity a national anthem needs.

Stars And Stripes Forever

Pros: For me, no melody is more "American" than this Sousa march (Copland's "Fanfare For the Common Man" is close).

Cons: Yes, there are lyrics. Yes, they are awful. Although we could use the "Be kind to your web-footed friends" ones...

Born In the USA

Pros: Everybody gets pumped from Springsteen's refrain.

Cons: Have you actually listened to the rest of the song? It's about the aftermath of Vietnam.

My vote? Well, "The Star Spangled Banner" may be unsingable, but I really don't see how we overcome the problems of any of the other candidates. Let's keep it.

Happy 4th to you all!

ADDING: I just remembered this routine by Robert Wuhl about Bruce Springsteen and making "Born To Run" the New Jersey state song:


Mrs. King's music students said...

Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of liberty
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling seas

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us...

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Keep the music Jazzman. You rock!

Duke said...

MKMS, I didn't include the Black National Anthem because it already occupies a special place in American musical history.

That said: it is one of the great patriotic songs of America, along with "We Shall Overcome."

Thanks for reminding us all.

KateGladstone said...

What if we keep the current national anthem, BUT move the unsingable high parts dwn a fifth or so? That was,after all, how the original a British tune went,and Hiw ipthecAmerocan song was sung for the first few decades of its existence: the transposition of some phrases upward a fifth was invented after the song had been repurposed as an anthem.

LRispoli said...

To Kate:
Down a fifth "or so?" That would change the melody completely. What is your source for how the British sang "To Anacreon in Heaven" this way? The only thing the British did different melodically is not use a raised fourth scale degree in the second phrase.