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Is it time to replace the national anthem?

July 29, 2020, 10:18 AM

An article from the Daily Mail was brought to my attention a while back about a few people who want to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem, ostensibly because author Francis Scott Key was a slave owner.  Replacing “The Star-Spangled Banner” is something that I have had an opinion about for quite some time, though my own opinions about the song as our national anthem have more to do with the song itself, and not for anything that specifically has to do with Key.

First of all, though, for those not familiar, “The Star-Spangled Banner” originated as a poem about the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812.  The poem was later given to his brother-in-law, Joseph H. Nicholson, who put the poem to the tune of “The Anacreontic Song“, which is essentially a drinking song that originated in London.  If you’ve never heard the tune with its original lyrics, I encourage you to give it a listen, because it’s a good song.  Nonetheless, hearing the way bands play the tune with such flourish as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and then remembering that it originated as an English drinking song makes me chuckle.

I take issue with “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a few big reasons.  First of all, the song is not about the country, but rather, it is specifically about the flag.  Another problem with the song is that it glorifies war.  And third, we can’t all see a little bit of ourselves in the song.  For the first point, Americans have a very strange fascination with the flag.  The thing about the flag is that it’s all well and good as a symbol that is associated with our country, but it’s only a symbol, and not actually the country.  Thus I find people who get all up in arms about the way people behave in the flag’s presence to be a bit amusing.  Our country is far from perfect.  We have lots of problems that we need to sort through as a country, and the flag is often used to represent the country, like when people kneel in front of the flag as a respectful way to express various concerns about the direction that our country is taking.  But some people treat the flag like it’s a god in its own right, to be worshipped and adored and held on a pedestal, and that’s not at all what the flag is about.  It brings some truth to the meme about the flag that says, “If you don’t stand for the special song, the magical sky cloth won’t freedom.”  Because that’s about how it sounds to someone like me, who views the flag as a symbol, separate from the thing that it represents.  And then as far as the second point goes, we are altogether too eager to declare war on things.  George Carlin put it best when he said, “We like war!  We’re a war-like people!  We like war because we’re good at it!  You know why we’re good at it?  Cause we get a lot of practice.  This country’s only 200 years old and already, we’ve had 10 major wars.  We average a major war every 20 years in this country, so we’re good at it!”  And for some reason, people love to glorify it.  And in regards to the last point, I feel like the song is distant to a lot of Americans.  I can’t see myself at all in that song, being about a battle in a war that happened over two centuries ago, and I see the flag in its standard form most often used as a political statement by factions supporting issues that I don’t typically agree with.  It all feels somewhat distant to me.  It’s not necessarily the way that I would want to see America represented.

But for the song that represents our country, flag worship, declaring war, and fighting battles is not what I consider putting our best foot forward for the world, even though we certainly do get into it a lot.

That said, what should replace it has gone through a little bit of evolution in my head.  The idea was to come up with a nice song that was about the country rather than the flag, and that was not about war.  My original thought for a replacement song was “America the Beautiful” by Katharine Lee Bates.  It checked all of the boxes for the most part.  It’s about the country, with the first verse about spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountains, and fruited plains in the first voice.  Then the second verse is about the pilgrims, the third verse is about sacrifice (essentially a heavily-veiled discussion of war), and the final verse sort of looks to the future, talking about patriot dreams that see beyond the years.  For many years, I was content that “America the Beautiful” was the song to use as a national anthem.  But then I had second thoughts, because of my own evolving stance on religion.  I stopped going to church in 2003, and then I soon came to realize that I had outgrown religion.  And “America the Beautiful” has a reference to God in every verse.  The first and fourth verses, after, “America!  America!” both say, “God shed His grace on thee.”  The second verse says, “God mend thine every flaw.”  And the third verse says, “May God thy gold refine.”  I didn’t want to trade one evil (war) for another evil (religion), especially in a country that constitutionally bars the government from establishing an official religion.  “God” is an inherently religious concept.  I take issue with the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance for the same reason (though my problems with the Pledge of Allegiance are a whole different can of worms that I don’t want to go into now), and I would also take “In God We Trust” off of our money.  Therefore, any reference to religion in an officially-designated song is a non-starter as far as I’m concerned.  And that knocks out “America the Beautiful” from contention.

These days, I consider “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie to be the best song to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.  I like it because it’s folksy, and feels very accessible and unpretentious.  In its most common version, there are no references to the military or war, no flag references, and no obvious references to God (though an earlier version does reference God).  Its five verses all discuss various things that make up what we think of as America: the coasts, the heartland, forests, waters, miles of highway, mountains, valleys, deserts, and farmland.  Perhaps it’s a bit idealized, but it works.  I think that we can all relate to something in this song, and we can all see a little bit of ourselves in it.  I may have never seen the redwoods, the deserts, or the Gulf of Mexico in person, but I have definitely done plenty of rolling and rambling through the country, I’ve gone down many highways, I’ve been to New York, and I’ve been past plenty of farmland.  I’m sure that many people have had similar experiences.  I also admit that I would love to see “This Land Is Your Land” performed at sporting events.  Considering the folksy nature of the song, I imagine that rather than seeing another overdone performance by some singer, it could be a sing-along, where they play the music, and put the words up on the big jumbotron so that everyone can participate.  After all, what better way to perform a national anthem that we can all see a little bit of ourselves in than by singing it all together as one?  It could be a new American tradition.

In the end, though, I know that the chances of seeing “The Star-Spangled Banner” be unseated as our national anthem any time in the foreseeable future are slim to none.  But you never know.  It might just happen one day.

Categories: Music, National politics