Long May It Wave

Talk about bombs bursting in air! I'm not sure how serious Michael Kinsley really is about replacing the Star-Spangled Banner as our national anthem. It's hardly an original suggestion, and he doesn't seem enthusiastic about most of the usual alternatives (except possibly for "America the Beautiful") he ticks off in his column. He likes "God Bless America," for example, but he praises it as "jolly and un-hymn-like" -- surely a left-handed compliment for a genre that must not only open baseball games but commemorate solemn anniversaries.

It's true that the anthem is hard to sing. But that's in part because democracies are based on messy compromises, while absolutist and totalitarian regimes from Louis XIV to Stalin have mobilized great art and music in the service of the State. Democracy's counterpart to Versailles, the US Capitol, was the work of a brilliant amateur whose poor interior planning took years to correct.  On the other hand, the bloody tyrant Joseph Stalin was a gifted singer as a young man, according to the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. The music historian Laurel E. Fay, in her recent lecture "The Great Tunesmith's Greatest Hit: A National Anthem for the Centuries," showed how Stalin took an active part in the contest for a  USSR counterpart to the cosmopolitan Internationale, and perhaps the best tribute to his efforts is that it is still (according to Fay) considered excellent for its purpose by music critics and scholars, for all the barbarity that it masked. Recent Russian governments have changed the words but have found no satisfactory replacement, for all their repudiation of most other Soviet-era symbols in favor of pre-Revolutionary ones. You can hear why even many educated Europeans who didn't know about the Gulag, or didn't want to know, were swayed by cult of personality, as (sadly) was the great singer Paul Robeson:

Among democracies "The Star-Spangled Banner" is no more offensive or bellicose than any other. Compare the "Marseillaise," with its promise to spread the enemy's "impure blood" as fertilizer. (No surrender monkeys there!) No wonder "Deutschland über Alles" is melodically superior to our national anthem -- Joseph Haydn himself composed the score in honor of Austrian Emperor Francis II's birthday in 1797 -- but it has survived as the present German national anthem only through the amputation of the first two of three verses of the poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben for their territorial claims and anachronistic Gemütlichkeit; lyrics here. As for the words of "God Save the Queen," one wit described them (can anyone help me with the reference?) as "a series of curt instructions to the Divinity."

If the tune of our national anthem originated in a drinking song, so what? In another post I've already noted the early nation's status as the Alcoholic Republic. John Hancock was a major importer (and sometimes smuggler) of Madeira, and as Marvin Kitman notes in George Washington's Expense Account,

Washington never drank more than a bottle of Madeira a night, as all the historians say, besides rum, punch and beer.

And it was in surviving leadership blunders in the War of 1812 that a new American patriotism was born. It's all to our credit as Americans that we have taken our national anthem (officially so for nearly 80 years) from one of our least glorious conflicts, when most major public buildings of the capital city were burned, the militia ran away, and President James Madison and his wife had to flee. The message that a nation's spirit transcends its leadership is the polar opposite of the spirit of authoritarian music.

The President and Congress have enough on their plate. For the sake of a more perfect union, let's keep, celebrate, and do our best to sing our imperfect anthem.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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