Sunday, 4 July 2010

In Defence of "The Star Spangled Banner"

Before anything else, I wish my fellow Americans a happy "4th of July!" It is this day that brings me to this post, on a subject that has concerned me for literally years. For many years--in fact, ever since I was a child--there have been those who have argued that "America the Beautiful"  should replace "The Star Spangled Banner" as the national anthem of the United States of America. In fact, I am not exactly sure when the movement to make "America the Beautiful" our national anthem began. Regardless, it is something I oppose with nearly every fibre of my being.

To examine this issue, it might do well to know the history of the two songs. "The Star Spangled Banner" has its origins in a poem written by Francis Scott Key entitled "The Defence of Fort McHenry." Mr. Key wrote the poem after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by ships of the British Royal Navy during the War of 1812, seeing that the American flag was still flying over the fort afterwards (that flag is now enshrined in the Smithsonian). The poem's words were eventually set to the tune of "The Anacreontic Song," the official song of the Anacreontic Society in London, often attributed to John Stafford Smith and written in the 1760's. For some time during the 19th Century, "The Star Spangled Banner" competed with "My Country 'Tis of Thee (sung to the tune of "God Save the Queen") and "Hail, Columbia (now forgotten)" as the country's unofficial, national anthem. As the 19th Century passed, "The Star Spangled Banner" began to grow in popularity. It started being played at 4th of July celebrations and other public events. On July 27, 1889 then Secretary of the Navy enacted General Order #374, which made "The Star Spangled Banner" the official tune to which would the Navy would raise flags. As early as 1897 it was played on opening day of baseball season in Philadelphia. In 1898 it would be played for the first time at the Polo Grounds in New York City. It was in 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson issued the order that "The Star Spangled Banner" be played before military ceremonies and other important occasions. It was on March 3, 1931 that President Herbert Hoover signed the bill that made "The Star Spangled Banner" the official national anthem of the United States of America.

As to "America the Beautiful," its origins rest in the poem "America," written by Katherine Lee Bates. Miss Bates was inspired to write the poem after a train trip from Wellesy College in Massachusetts to Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1893. The poem was published under the title "America" in 1895 in The Congregationalist, a church publication. For many years it was sung to a variety of tunes, including "Auld Lang Syne." Its modern tune came about in 1910 Samuel A. Ward set the poem to the tune of the hymn "O Mother Dear, Jerusalem," at which point it was given its current title. Over the years it would prove rather popular, with notable versions, including ones by Ray Charles, Tennessee Earnie Ford, Judy Garland, and Elvis Presley.

There were those who argued for "America the Beautiful" as the national anthem even before the United States had a national anthem. As early as the 1920's where those who argued for the adoption of "America the Beautiful" as our national anthem, although at that point there were many more who favoured "The Star Spangled Banner." At no point since then  has there not been at least a few people who have argued on behalf of "America the Beautiful" as the national anthem of the United States of America, but the idea would not really begin to pick up steam until the Eighties, when a majority of readers responding to a 1989 Parade magazine poll voted for "America the Beautiful" as our national anthem. The idea grew more popular in the Nineties, and reached a peak in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. The movement to make "America the Beautiful" our national anthem would lose some steam afterwards, although it remains quite popular to this day.

As to why anyone would want to change our national anthem from "The Star Spangled Banner" to "America the Beautiful," the song's proponents have presented various arguments over the years. One that is quite popular is that "The Star Spangled Banner" is simply difficult to sing. To properly sing "The Star Spangled Banner" it takes a vocal range of around an octave and a half, something most people do not possess. While I must admit it can be a difficult song to sing, to me this is not a valid argument for several reasons. The first is that if "The Star Spangled Banner" is hard to sing as it stands now, why don't we simply sing it in the original key of G minor in which the original tune was composed? This argument has been made by Garrison Kellor, who points out that this can be managed by the average singer with little problem. Second, the argument that "Star Spangled Banner" is hard to sing ignores the fact that "America the Beautiful" is even harder to sing. Indeed, the chorus of "America the Beautiful" is difficult for the average person to sing without sounding like he or she is shouting! Only a handful of singers have ever sung "America the Beautiful" properly, and many more (even professional singers) have not. Third, I do not think we should choose our national anthem according to how hard it is to sing. Human beings vary in their ability to sing, and there are some for whom even "The Star Spangled Banner" sung in G minor would be a stretch. If we were to choose our national anthem according to something every, single American could sing, then we would  have to ditch both "The Star Spangled Banner" and the even more difficult to sing  "America the Beautiful" in favour of some rap song (anyone can rap)!

Second, there are those who object to the imagery of war present in "The Star Spangled Banner." Indeed, the lyrics describe "bombs bursting in air" and "the rocket's red glare." This is natural, given that the lyrics are based on a real life incident that occurred in an actual war. Here it must be pointed out, however, that while "The Star Spangled Banner" describes a situation during a war, it in no way glorifies war. Indeed, what it is describing is the defence of American soil against an attack from an enemy and our victory against that enemy. The British attack on Fort McHenry was essentially an attempt to invade Baltimore--the fort lying in the city's harbour. Had we not won the battle, the British would have taken Baltimore. Many of my fellow Americans seem to forget the significance of the War of 1812. Not only was it the last time that another country invaded American soil, but it is quite possible that had the United States lost the war, it could have simply become a collection of British colonies again. While "The Star Spangled Banner" doe reference war, then, it is describing a pivotal moment in our history when we were defending our nation in a battle on which the survival of that nation depended. I can think of nothing more inspiring than that.

While it seems to me that objections to "The Star Spangled Banner" as our national anthem simply are not valid, it seems to me that there are objections to making "America the Beautiful" our national anthem which are quite valid, beyond the fact that it is hard to sing. Indeed, I must point out that unlike "The Star Spangled Banner," "America the Beautiful" frequently mentions "God." Now here I must emphatically state that I am not against organised religion (in fact, I consider myself very religious), but the fact remains that in the United States we have these ideas of separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion. The use of the word "God" in a national anthem is then unacceptable. The fact is that not every American is Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. There are many who are atheists or agnostics, and many more who belong to other faiths who might have many gods or simply one god, whom they do not call "God." In using the word "God," then, "American the Beautiful" would then seem to favour Christianity, Islam and  Judaism over other faiths. For a country built upon both separation of church and state and freedom of religion , this is unacceptable.

Of course, other lyrics in the song are objectionable for similar reasons. Among its lines are "Oh, beautiful for pilgrim's feet." Now the Pilgrims were a religious sect which left Britain to practise their brand of Christianity without concerns from the Church of England. As a religious sect the Pilgrims hardly represent all Americans. Just as the Pilgrims left England so they could practise their religion as they saw fit, others left England for other reasons. My ancestors on my mother's side were Cavaliers fleeing the Cromwellian tyranny. Indeed, Jamestown was settled before the arrival of the Pilgrims on American shores. The reference to pilgrim's feet is then objectionable as it refers to a religious group (taking us back to the separation of church and state) and it hardly represents every one of the settlers in what would become the United States (the vast majority of us whose forebears did not come over on the Mayflower).

Beyond these objections, I have those of my own, which I must admit are subjective rather than objective. As I said earlier, I find "The Star Spangled Banner" very inspiring as it describes the defence of the United States against an enemy. Indeed, it includes the lines "land of the free and the home of the brave," invoking the ideal character of the country. While "The Star Spangled Banner" speaks to our character, however, all "America the Beautiful" mostly does is speak of the grandeur of the countryside itself. True, there are lines which speak of "a thoroughfare of freedom" and "thy liberty in law," but these seems to be lost amidst the references to "fruited plains" and "alabaster cities." While "The Star Spangled Banner" addresses the American soul, "America the Beautiful" simply addresses its landscape. It is little more than a travelogue of the United States as it existed in the 1890's. I do not find this particularly rousing myself (and here I must apologise to my Canadian friends, but I find "O Canada" uninspiring for the same reasons). It speaks to nothing of the idealised character of our country or even national pride.

To sum it up, "America the Beautiful" is difficult to sing. If made our national anthem it would violate the separation of church and state. And it says nothing of the character of our country or national pride. On the other hand, "The Star Spangled Banner" is easier to sing (especially in G minor), it does not violate the seperation of church and state, and it says a good deal about our national character and national pride. It is for that reason I do not understand why anyone would want to adopt "America the Beautiful" as our national anthem. I for one am not inspired by it. I feel no pride when I hear it. On the other hand, even if it was not custom to do so, I would rise to my feet for "The Star Spangled Banner." Not only is "The Star Spangled Banner" a more ideal national anthem than "America the Beautiful," to me it is a far superior song.

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