Oh Say Can You Sing?

Some off-key thoughts on the need for a new and better national anthem.

By all rights, 1976 should be the year for a new national anthem. Our nation’s 200th birthday would be the perfect time to correct a mistake made forty-four years ago, on March 3, 1931, when the Senate passed and President Herbert Hoover signed into law a bill establishing Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the one song to be played, heard, or sung as the national anthem of the United States.

President Hoover and the Senate cannot be blamed too harshly. For three years they had withstood an intensive campaign, initiated by Representative J. Charles Linthicum of Baltimore, organized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and supported across the nation by scores of Sunday School societies, temperance organizations, DAR chapters, and other assemblies of right-thinking Americans, all of them militantly indifferent to the fact that the United States had survived the first 155 years of its history without the benefit of an official national anthem.

Key’s verses, written in 1814 during the British Navy’s unsuccessful bombardment of Fort McHenry, and later set to the tune of an eighteenth-century English drinking song entitled “To Anacreon in Heaven,” had never been any more popular than “My Country ‘tis of Thee,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” or “Dixie.” Then, in 1898, aglow with American victories over Spain, Admiral Dewey ordered the Navy Band to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” on all state occasions. Other service bands followed suit. Veterans of the war began to lobby for its national adoption. World War I provided another opportunity to press for it. In 1931 the Star-Spangled Juggernaut rumbled through the Senate, and a country sunk in depression found that it could unite at least in the singing of its national anthem.

Except, of course, that is exactly what did not happen. For almost nobody sings our national anthem. It is simply too difficult. Usually it is played by a band. Less frequently and successfully, it is sung by a soloist.

Basso George London, who has sung such roles as Boris Godunov and Othello at the Met, wrote in a 1968 issue of Life: “The difficulties of our national anthem awe me. I prepare for it as I would a major operatic role. When required to sing it in public, I warm up long in advance . . . and yet I am rarely satisfied with my performance. If you want to know the truth, most singers avoid singing it in public. It is just too hard.”

If the SSB fills George London with apprehension, think of what it must do to ordinary citizens whose musical talents may just get them through “Sweet Adeline” and “Abide with Me.” If they remain silent, we should not be surprised. After all, the anthem has a range of one octave and five notes. The phrasing is awkward and the rhythm uncertain. The melody moves up and down with unpredictable skips. Only a few trained sopranos and tenors can hit the high F on “glare” when the song is pitched in its usual B flat. The SSB could perhaps take a prize as the world’s most unsingable national anthem.

The SSB has another problem. It is only indirectly a song about our country. It is actually a song about the flag. The words never mention the land and the people who came to that land. They never mention the excitements of America’s discovery, the westward treks, and the great migrations. They ignore the drama that is America. Instead they celebrate a minor incident in a minor war, when our nation was certainly in no greater danger than it stands today, and when (O blessed innocence!) our cause indeed was just.

That was 160 years ago, and since that age of comparative simplicity we have grown, prospered, sinned, and struggled with issues which we scarcely understood or even recognized. We have experienced a civil war, two world wars, and three wars of our own imperialism. We have survived strikes and depressions, two presidential assassinations, and one resignation. We have come to realize that we are neither as pure as once we hoped nor as sinful as we sometimes feared. We have, in short, begun to grow up. And this means that the patriotism of 1814, whipped up again during one of our less distinguished wars and endorsed by a reluctant legislature in the midst of a depression, is not the kind of patriotism which we now in fact hold to. Democrat, Republican, Independent—we simply no longer believe it. Because we no longer truly believe it, we are loath to sing our anthem.

The difficulty of the music is both an excuse for not singing the anthem and at the same time an unspoken reason for keeping it. What may seem like an argument against the SSB—its unsingability—is actually the cause of its continued popularity.

Most Americans do not want to sing their national anthem. They want to think that they are patriotic but they don’t want to show it in public unless the required action is undemanding. It is not difficult to stand up, face the flag, and remain upright for seventy-five seconds while a soloist or band executes the anthem. Many of the spectators even applaud the performers or the recording as they sit down. This is the way most Americans experience the SSB.

After all, sports fans are the curators of our nation’s anthem. They are a conservative lot, and do not encourage alterations or substitutions. When the management of Comiskey Park told their organist to open the games with “God Bless America,”the patrons’ protest forced them to revert to the SSB. When the promoters of the 1973 Olympic tryouts announced that they were planning to omit the SSB from the opening ceremonies in Madison Square Garden in order to avoid such embarrassing demonstrations as had occurred at the Games in Mexico City, their financial backers threatened to pull out. When José Feliciano sang his soul version of the SSB before the fifth game of the 1968 World Series in Detroit, the fans booed. Such notables as Aretha Franklin, Vincent Lopez, and Igor Stravinsky have learned that most Americans like their national anthem straight with no additives or chasers.

Except for the vote of the 1974 annual conference of the Minnesota United Methodist Church, there has been neither a ground swell nor a ripple of public opinion indicating any desire for a new anthem. It is true that from 1955 to 1968, Rep. Joel T. Broyhill of Virginia annually introduced to the House Judiciary Committee a bill ordering that the national anthem be customarily sung in the key of B flat but that the keys of G, A, and A flat be allowed as options. The bill never made it out of committee.

Most sports fans and Americans agree, I suspect, with Howard Flieger, who says in a 1974 issue of U.S. News & World Report, “Surely there are better things to do in these trying times than complain about ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” Mr. Flieger then points to a clinching reason that the SSB will not be soon replaced. We will not be able to agree upon its successor.

There have been many nominations for that spot: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “America the Beautiful,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “God Bless America,” to name a few. But I see no reason to expect an immediate change.

We will choose a new anthem only when we comprehend that the arrogant sense of national independence, so painfully apparent in our present anthem, must be replaced by a sense of our international dependence, and that loyalty to the flag must be replaced by a loyalty to our land and its people. We will be ready for a new anthem when we realize that if the bombs once more burst in the air, the flag will not still be there in the morning because nothing will be there. But we can’t expect that awareness to take place by 1976.

What can we do then? I have two suggestions. My first and more modest suggestion is this: Let Congress order that henceforth the national anthem be no longer performed, but rather sung by the people present at any assembly. Let the people take their anthem seriously enough to sing it. Or, if they cannot or will not sing it, let there be silence. That would be preferable to the blasphemy of an adenoidal tenor warbling to a silent throng.

My second and more radical suggestion is this: If we can agree that the SSB might be replaced by a better anthem, and if we can furthermore agree that we see no likely successor at this time, let Congress disestablish the SSB for ten years and declare an open season on national anthems. Let us live for a decade as we did for our first 155 years— without benefit of anthem.

The crowds at Comiskey Park can listen to “God Bless America,” Sunday congregations can sing “My Country ‘tis of Thee,” school children can sing “This Land is Your Land,” and the Navy Band can still play that splendid music originally entitled “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Annual anthem contests can be held. Old songs, such as “Chester” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” can be resurrected. The Gallup and Harris polls can take weekly readings of the nation’s lyric pulse. Ministers, editors, and commentators can whoop for their favorites. Lobbies can be organized. And, lest the contest become a permanent obsession, the entire drama will come to an end in 1986, when Congress again votes to establish a national anthem. If it once more chooses “The Star-Spangled Banner.” we can consider the matter closed—if not for all time, at least until our tercentenary. □