Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ruminations on the National Anthem

One of the many reasons I enjoy watching international sporting events is the chance to compare the national anthems of different countries.  There are a few nations with some very stirring anthems - "O Canada" and "Advance, Australia Fair" immediately spring to mind.  "La Marseillaise" is also excellent, but it's rather creepy once you know what the last few lines ("Marchons, marchons! / Qu'un sang impur, / Abreuve nos sillons!") translates into.  A few could probably be replaced by something better, but at least aren't that bad - I'd put the "Deutschlandlied" and "God Save the Queen" in this category, although the British don't seem to realize that "Jerusalem" is a vastly better song, despite it's obvious religious overtones.  It's just a very moving piece of music.  I'm even partial to "Rule, Britannia!" but such imperialistic sentiments are probably inappropriate in the 21st Century.

Which brings me to the rather troubled national anthem of these, our United States.  First off, it's unsingable.  How often must we suffer through trained performers screwing it up before this becomes clear?  Second, the song is almost unique in the world of national anthems, in that it is a description of an event (the shelling of Fort McHenry), rather than simply an ode to the nation and its virtues.  Third, the tune simply isn't (to my mind) all that great.  And, as it happens, there's a much better piece that solves all these problems and is already quite well-known: "America, the Beautiful."

Yes, it invokes the almighty in the refrain, but in the form of a request, not an assertion.  I get a lot less upset at "God shed his grace on thee" than the ridiculous "Annuit coeptis" on our currency, as if we are all certain that God or providence has, in fact, favored our undertaking.  But beyond that, the lyrics are truly moving, especially the fourth verse:
Oh, beautiful for patriot dream,
Which sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears.
I still recall Dan Rather breaking down while reciting these words on David Letterman's first broadcast after 9/11, and remarking that "We can never sing those words the same way again."  No, we can't.  If nothing else, the sentiment is perfect for a post-9/11 America.  And the melody is evocative too, unlike the current national anthem, which sounds like what it is: the tune of a drinking song, namely "To Anacreon in Heaven."  Ew.  And so, here in the early 21st Century, we ought to do away with our substandard anthem, and replace it with the first or, better yet, fourth verse of "America, the Beautiful."

And while I'm on the topic of official songs, I'm quite a fan of "On, Wisconsin," but "Maryland, My Maryland" really needs to be stricken as the state song of Maryland.  Why?  Because the song was written by a secessionist hoping Maryland would join the Confederacy.  And it refers to our greatest president as a "tyrant," a "vandal," and a "despot."  Why the Hell is it Maryland's state song?*  And before you say "But, [Redacted], state songs and national anthems are traditions and cannot be changed," check out Colorado.  That's right!  In 2007, the State of Colorado changed their state song to that atrocious John Denver diddy, "Rocky Mountain High," causing stoners everywhere to snicker.  Tennessee has had eight different state songs, and the current one is a 1980 country song by Ronnie Milsap.  I guess "Rocky Top" got boring or something.  "Georgia on My Mind" only became the state song of Georgia in the Seventies.  So while I'm advocating for our national anthem to be changed to "America, the Beautiful," can someone please write a song about Maryland, so that the Old Line State can finally have a non-secessionist state song?

*Also, on an aesthetic note, the song isn't helped by being set to the hokey and groan-inducing strains of "O Tannenbaum."

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