“National melodies are the nursery songs of a people, heard in the dimly recollected days of its infancy, lingering in its maturer memory, and cherished there even more for the sake of dear associations.”
My favorite moment at any sports game – and I realize this is a low bar, for me – is the quiet, contemplative pause before the cutthroat competition begins, when the crowd rises in unison and momentarily shelves their individual worries and preoccupations for the singing of the National Anthem. The players who will oppose each other shortly, for now shed their separate identities; the spectators, too, drop whatever they are doing to share in the moment, hands on hearts, all at once forced to confront the supreme privilege it is to engage in pure sport in a truly free land.
It really gets me. Every time.
And yet… And yet. And yet, it could be better, as far as contemplative moments go. The scene is moving, but the music leaves a lot to be desired, because “The Star-Spangled Banner” is honestly the pits.
Give it a try; it’s almost impossible to sing. The notes screech and dive in an unpleasant pattern, especially that awkward octave-drop on “the twilight’s last gleaming.” The song describes a specific scene in a specific battle in the practically prehistoric War of 1812. I have no idea what a “rampart” is. And most irritatingly of all, why does it end on a question? “O! Say does that star-spangled banner yet wave? / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Are we asking for confirmation? Just checking to see if we’re still waving the flag? For a post-Revolution tune, it’s awash in an apologetic British tone.
Just in case you think I have some weird axe to grind with Francis Scott Key, I’m not the only one who feels this way about the national anthem.
In 1861, beneath the daily strife and death-toll headlines caused by the Civil War, was an America that was hungry for identity and unity. We know this because in 1861, sometime between the battle of Fort Sumter in April and the Battle of Bull Run in August, the Committee Upon the National Hymn was formed to find a new national anthem that would reflect the modern times and culture of the United States.
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” said the committee, was “almost useless” with a range “out of the compass of ordinary voices.”
The words were “altogether unfitted for a national hymn…almost entirely descriptive, and of a particular event.” (See? Nobody knows what a rampart is!)
“The lines are, also, too long, and the rhyme too involved for a truly popular patriotic song. They tax the memory; they should aid it. The rhythm is too complicated, and often harsh and vague.”
Basically, said the committee, we hate the Star-Spangled Banner and if we never hear “O SAY!” again it will be too soon.
Some people suggested substituting “Yankee Doodle” (too burlesque, said the committee) or “Hail Columbia” (too comic!) So they held a contest, offering $500 to whomever could create an elegant poem worthy of becoming the new national anthem. They received over 1200 entries.
But none were found worthy. All 1200 were rejected by the committee. This became a bit of a scandal, to deem over a thousand Americans’ best try at writing a song “not good enough.’ Understandably, people were starting to get a little frustrated with this impossible-to-please committee. One of these critics’ critics was a Brit, Richard Grant White, who published his favorite submissions from the contest in a little booklet called National Hymns: How They Are Written and How They Are Not Written.
Once you get past the fussy title, White’s essay is a well-considered assessment of the differences between American and British art in the 19th century, and the lack of a distinctly American music and literature. He emphasizes the void of appropriate political songs in America in 1861, and points to the crucial role of a national anthem. “National melodies,” he says, “are the nursery songs of a people, heard in the dimly recollected days of its infancy, lingering in its maturer memory, and cherished there even more for the sake of dear associations.”
In 1861, the infant Republic was in flux. Things did not look promising for the United States, still a relatively new concept in the world’s eyes. Without a certain future, the American identity was changing shape like a yo-yo dieter; and without a consistent identity, any attempt at a national anthem was going to be worn like an ill-fitting suit. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the closest thing we had to a nursery song with dear associations, even if no one alive could easily picture a rocket’s red glare; and now, more than ever, the country needed to be rocked back to a peaceful slumber.
The desire for a new song was there, and the Committee’s contest idea was a good one – but it was poor timing. There was not yet much in the way of commonly identified “American Things” to draw from, to create an evocative and archetypically American tune. Now we have Ford trucks and cutoff shorts and apple pie, but it seems we are stuck with the “Star-Spangled Banner,” stuck forever with its dreadful rollercoaster of high and low pitches and unrecognizable battle references. (I will take this moment to acknowledge that there is one, and only one, powerful rendition: Whitney Houston’s 1991 Superbowl performance, delivered at the onset of the Persian Gulf War, to a fractured nation that once again needed the comfort of their familiar national nursery rhyme.)
Given today’s contentious political climate, I don’t think the time is quite right for another contest. It appears we must put up with the ear-bleeding SSB for a while longer. So, I’ve taken on the task of culling some suggestions for America’s Almost-National Anthem, and putting them, along with some of my own ideas, in the Spotify playlist below.
If we had an alternate national anthem that was not the god-awful Star Spangled Banner, what would you choose?
Emma: “Born in the USA. No. Party in the USA.”
Fiona: “My Country Tis of Thee…NOT. Definitely America the Beautiful.”
Alyssa: “Ruff Ryders Anthem. That’s a good anthem.”
GT: “Lean On Me. The soul version… but also the campfire version. Democrats and Republicans would figure out a way to get along.”
Alex: “That OG 90s song, Proud to be an American.”
Our Dad: “The Jimi Hendrix version of the Star Spangled Banner.”
Have a good one? Share your picks in the comments.