Quick! Which famous, Romantic-era American poet wrote these words?
Where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
You’re already ahead of me here–yes, these words (and lots more problematic verbal embellishments) were the work of Francis Scott Key, author of our national anthem. Including this bit, speaking of foul: No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.
Of course, nobody ever sings those verses.
As a musician and school music teacher who has played and conducted the national anthem thousands upon thousands of times, I was fascinated by the gusher of praise for Lady Gaga’s creative (and, I thought, quite lovely) rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Gaga changed the key (yes, there’s an official key–Ab) and the meter, crafting a unique arrangement and singing a notoriously difficult tune well.
Her critics mostly focused on her politics, rather than her performance. Some ‘classical’ musicians, who typically turn their noses up when amateur or pop musicians sing things at big public events, gave her a thumbs-up.
What we ought to be giving a thumbs-down is the national anthem itself. It’s a disgrace.
- The tune is an old British drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven. Our second best-known national song, My Country, ‘tis of Thee, also swiped its melody: God Save the King (or Queen, as the case may be). We need our own music, written by a bona fide American.
- The vibe is warlike—not representing our core values. Seriously. Check out the actual words, above. Don’t we want something that, say, salutes democracy and patriotic concord?
- The words are meaningless to modern Americans. They were written at a time when the continued existence of any American states, united or not, was in question. There is reason to study that time, as our current lack of unity is pretty terrifying–but my guess is that perhaps one out of ten American citizens can tell you what the song is actually about, with a lyric sheet in front of them.
- The SSB is incredibly difficult to sing, with a range of an octave and a fifth (that’s 12 notes, from the bottom to the glaring pinnacle). It’s also in ¾ time, which makes marching difficult.
- The archaic lyrics are eminently forget-able. Here’s proof.
- The key of Ab is not easy for young or amateur musicians. Instrumental arrangers, trying to make something interesting out of a prosaic tune, often make the range and key problems worse by adding prone-to-crack trumpet or vocal flourishes, in an even higher key.
- It was officially named the national anthem in 1931 because Woodrow Wilson used it to raise and lower the colors during his administration, and we didn’t have an official anthem during WW I, like all the other countries. Evidently, Congress couldn’t agree on something better.
- It does not lend itself to group singing—as you may have noticed if you’ve attended a professional sporting event—and what’s a national anthem for, if not a little dab of honest patriotism that all can participate in?
And yes, I’m thinking supportively of Colin Kaepernick et al, too. We need an anthem that embraces our multiculturalism, our principles of representative government, our gorgeous natural beauty—and (thanks, Joe) our national unity. If we ever get it.
I taught and performed the national anthem every year I was in the classroom. At first, I just taught the notes and rhythms, but stressed the importance of playing it well. My personal preference is a straightforward instrumental version, played at a rapid clip. The longer the song drags out, the more restless the crowd. The meaning shifts from a desire to appreciate our common values to a distraction from whatever it is the audience came for.
Later, I turned learning the national anthem into a humanities lesson, studying the drawbacks to our current anthem and exploring other options to the land of the free and the home of the brave. There are lots of picture books that present Francis Scott Key as noble patriotic hero, quill in hand as the battle rages in Baltimore Harbor, but his backstory as a slave holder from a wealthy American family added complexity and honesty to a classroom discussion with the mostly white students I was teaching.
I polled my students—what could replace the Star-Spangled Banner? It’s a great lesson for music teachers, K-12, vocal and instrumental—but also those who teach literature and civics. You can analyze the musical elements as well as the lyrics and cultural genesis of any number of potential anthems.
I added Lift Every Voice and Sing to the list, because it’s an honest picture of how much of our citizenry lives with generations of abuse and neglect—and still sings about faith, rejoicing and the harmonies of liberty. I was very clear with my students, after introducing the song, that it was the Black national anthem, not available for white people to steal, as they had already stolen too many cultural artifacts and ideas. That one idea could, by the way, could support an entire month of lessons.
Teaching at a middle school, my students would cluster-vote for This Land is Your Land, which is undeniably super-easy to sing and play. The protest verses made it attractive to them in the 1970s and 80s. Later, someone would always propose God Bless the U.S.A. as the national anthem—and many times, it was students’ consensus choice. Mostly, I think, because they’d heard it before, and could sing along.
Which proves my point: a national song ought to be widely known and easily sung.
Personally—and this is hardly an inspired choice—I would prefer America the Beautiful. Not for the purple mountains’ majesties or alabaster cities, but for this classic line, more relevant than ever:
America! America! God mend thine every flaw.
Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.