Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

New, Improved, Bigger, Better and Americaner

The time has come for the United States of America to set herself apart in yet another way. What we need is a rotating National Anthem, because a nation such as ours can never be complete with only one.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" has taken its share of pounding from critics over the years, including claims that it is difficult to sing and that it's too war-oriented. The first claim has some merit, though because of the challenges associated with singing the song, our gratification increases when a vocalist really handles it (see Marvin Gaye, NBA All-Star Game, 1983). As for the second charge, well, what can be said? We cannot ignore history nor deny that some of our country's wars have yielded positive outcomes. War is not, and shouldn't be, all we're about, but nor should we forget the toil and sacrifice of the soldier.

Ultimately, "The Star-Spangled Banner" seems like a better poem than it is a song, but it's too important to leave out of the rotation. Two things to bear in mind are that Francis Scott Key originally wrote it as a poem and it was not set to music until years later and that the writing chronicles not a great victory, but a state of affairs much closer to defeat. The War of 1812's conclusion left the United States with a favorable treaty as Great Britain rushed her troops back to Europe to confront a resurging Napoleon, but Britain won nearly every battle, sacked Washington, and set the city ablaze. The events chronicled by Key in Baltimore in 1814 tell us a story of survival and resilience, not of glory and triumph. This, by the way, is a good thing and unusual for a National Anthem. You can't always prevail, but you can live to fight another day. And we have.

"The Banner" must not be abandoned, but its limitations are precisely why we need alternatives. The first and most obvious of these is "America the Beautiful", a stunningly wonderful number far more anthemic than Key's piece. The antithesis of "the Banner's" narrow focus, this song's first verse describes the beauty and grandeur of America's appearance. Also originally a poem by Katharine Lee Bates, the piece was set to music composed by Samuel Ward, who died before the song became popular and never met Bates. It's another perfect American story: sad, funny, and ironic.

Now comes the time for adventure. Forget "God Bless America" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee", not because these are bad songs, but because they are too similar in spirit and form to the previous two. Besides, "My Country 'Tis of Thee" has the same melody as "God Save the Queen" and we don't want one of our National Anthem's sounding exactly like Britain's. Continue to perform these songs, by all means, but leave them out of the National Anthem rotation. What we need here is variety without creating so many alternate National Anthems so as to become hazy and convoluted. In short, we need one more song to create a tidy rotation of three.

Probably the best way to do this is to proclaim "The Star Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful" permanent members of the mix, with various third songs working their way in and out over a period of a few years. All three songs would officially be The National Anthem, so at public forums, ceremonies, or sporting events, any of the three could be played, or all three could be played, assuming the audience is patient enough.

So what should the third anthem be? Many people are partial to Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land", and it's hard to blame them. The song does have some controversial lyrics in its later verses, but why shrink from controversy? Though this idea of multiple National Anthems originates somewhat out of the desire to illustrate and embrace the great variety of the United States, there is no possible way to please everyone. As it stands now, many people are unhappy with the present National Anthem. If that Anthem were replaced, at least as many people would be unhappy with that development. The various National Anthems won't delight everyone either, but at least in this scheme, "The Star Spangled Banner" doesn't disappear altogether, so the people devoted to the song can retain it and the people uncomfortable with it have options.

"This Land Is Your Land" is an undeniably great and glorious piece worthy of consideration for the third Anthem, but it shares one slight drawback with Francis Scott Key's masterpiece: the song never mentions any of the three words "United", "States", or "America." Not that there's any question what country the song is about, with its references to "the New York islands", but it does seem jarring that this kind of song never explicitly mentions this country.

Lovely as Woody Guthrie's composition is, there might be an even better one. In the late 1950s, reputedly following a trip to Australia where he witnessed hardships endured by the Aborigines, Chuck Berry wrote "Back in the USA". Though not exactly an obscure song, it is far less well-known than the others mentioned in this writing, so the lyrics are reprinted below.

"Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today
We just touched ground on an international runway
Jet-propelled back home from overseas to the USA

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
Let alone just to be at my home back in old St. Lou'

Did I miss the skyscrapers? Did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California to the shores of the Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did 'til I got back in the USA

Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner cafe'
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
And the jukebox jumping with records like in the USA
Well, I'm so glad I'm living in the USA

Yes, I'm so glad I'm living in the USA
Anything you want, you got it right here in the USA."

Those who have not heard the song before must also envision the Moonglows chanting "uh huh huh, oh yeah" in the background. Now THAT is an American song, performed in an idiom largely of American design--rock and roll--by a great American success story. Chuck Berry also happens to be a sex deviant, but in a way even that regrettable fact adds more than it detracts from the overall picture. Thomas Jefferson was both a great man and a slaveholder. That's America: we are weak and strong, brilliant and ignorant, big and noisy, subtle and graceful, war-mongering and peace-loving, selfish and generous.

So let's not waste another minute. We want three National Anthems: "The Star-Spangled Banner", "America the Beautiful", and "Back in the USA". We're just too big, varied, and insane for anything less!


Blogger Beth said...

Not a bad idea in theory, but do you think it could ever happen? And would all the old bitters running the country ever accept Chuck's song as an anthem? Half of them probably still think rock n' roll is the devil! I agree with you about the national anthem we have...doesn't really cover the scope of what is America.

14 March, 2009 11:16  

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