Saturday, May 25, 2013

Solving the Anthem Problem

During the last week, I popped into a Twitter conversation lamenting our National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. In the end, one of the folks in the thread said our anthem should be changed to America the Beautiful. About the only song worse as a choice would probably be This Land is Your Land.

However, there is a problem with our anthem. No it's not that The Star-Spangled Banner is difficult to sing, or that celebrity anthem singers before major events frequently mangle it. The problem is simply that we're singing the wrong words.

You see, all that is ever sung of our National Anthem is the first verse. We hopefully all know it well:
O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
I'll go right on the record that I can't stand these words from Francis Scott Key's poem, originally known as The Defense of Fort McHenry. Why? Because it ends in a question. It is indefinite whether or not the defenders had survived and the flag was still aloft. We're left thinking that, well, the flag - and therefore our nation - might not be there anymore. Fortunately, Key didn't leave it there. Verse two brings some resolution to the question of verse one:
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Ah! Even though the enemy is still present, our flag is still flying "[i]n full glory". Verse two doesn't end indefinitely like the first, but yet leaves some uncertainty or question about the future: "O! long may it wave". We're not exactly inspiring confidence here.

Compare what we've seen of The Star-Spangled Banner with, say, another anthem fairly familiar to Americans, that of our neighbor to the north, Canada:
O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
Much better than either of the first two verses of Key's poem and our anthem as set to music. Wouldn't it be great if we had words like that for our anthem. If only Key had written...

Wait, what?! Francis Scott Key did "go there"?!?! Who knew? Sadly about 99.9999% of Americans don't. Check out verse three:
And 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.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Whoa! Anthem red meat, most definitely. Remember back to September 11, 2001? Remember Osama bin Laden and his goal of raining terror on the "great Satan"? How does the first four lines of verse three not apply to Osama and friends, or Hitler, or Stalin, or whomever else has wished the erasure of the United States from memory? Not only are we going to get you, we're going to wash away the fact that you tried to do us in with your own blood. Most importantly, we close the verse with an affirmation: the flag flies in triumph.

But yeah, it still gets better. Key, in the fourth and final verse of his poem remembers that freedom, indeed, isn't free, and as this piece of commentary is going up on Memorial Day weekend 2013, this is the verse to our anthem everybody should be singing on these days:
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Memorial Day is to remember those free men (and women) who have stood between their loved homes and the desolation of war - and who didn't come back alive. And frankly, the church-state separation fanatics can go pound salt over "Praise the Power" and "In God is our trust"; placing reliance on divine providence is in the Declaration of Independence, after all. And we close with an affirmative indefinite: our flag shall wave in triumph.

Depending on mood, when I'm present for the singing of our national anthem, I choose to sing verse three or four, regardless of the people around me. Do you wish we had a better anthem? Learn the other verses, and start singing!

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