Stars and Stripes Forever

FRANK SINATRA ATTACKED it. Roseanne Barr defiled it. Whitney Houston lip-synched it. Jimi Hendrix reinterpreted it. Basketball star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf found himself traded because he abstained from singing it. Robert Goulet forgot the words and faked it.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" is the electoral college of American music--you probably don't have the range to sing it, which makes it inherently anti-democratic, and there are perennial calls to replace the damn thing. It's also the Triumph of the Will of national anthems: a beautiful thing to hate. And many generations of drunk, hyperventilating sports fans have passed out while trying to cover its octave-and-a-half tune, perhaps subconsciously intuiting the Bacchanalian origins of its Franco-English-drinking-song melody. The music's triumphalism is built right into a climax that stirs even black veterans troubled by the worst line in its widely forgotten third verse: "No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave."

Scribbled on an envelope by Francis Scott Key, a distant cousin of F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Banner" relives the night that the British failed to take Baltimore in 1814. The lyrics apparently refer to the slaves freed by the empire in exchange for joining the raiding party--men who, according to Robin Blackburn's definitive The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776-1848, volunteered to be placed in the battle line "where they might expect to meet their former masters."

You can understand why many black Americans were embracing entirely different odes to God and homeland by the time "Banner" became the anthem of the Army, Navy, and baseball stadiums in 1916. With "Lift Every Voice and Sing," Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson excluded the excluders--"Stony the road we trod/Bitter the chastening rod" could hardly refer to anyone but blacks. Brits weren't any more thrilled when Herbert Hoover made Key's dance of death into the nation's theme in 1931. "It would be like us singing, 'Kill all the Americans,'" Billy Bragg once quipped. Or, more accurately, it would be like singing "Kill all the Americans" to the tune of "Yes, We Have No Bananas."

In the annual Fourth of July debate over what other musical "Banner" we might fly, we all know what Bragg would probably favor: the topographical "This Land Is Your Land," which was penned by lefty hero Woody Guthrie in 1940 as a populist response to Broadway millionaire Irving Berlin's assimilationist thank-you "God Bless America"--itself a peaceable substitute for the national anthem. Leaving aside the truly weird "America the Beautiful"--whose "pilgrim feet" under "impassioned stress" seem to find favor mainly among Ray Charles fans--Berlin's and Guthrie's anthems cancel each other out. The bouncy show tune and simple folk song both lack the catharsis that "Banner" delivers.

So let's consider the alternatives. John Newton's "Amazing Grace" registers as national redemption only if you know that it was written by a slave-ship captain turned abolitionist minister. Randy Newman's pop ballad "Sail Away"--an imagined sales pitch to would-be chattel--was a more honest version of Newton's tale: The self-deluded slaver wasted years making his trade more "humane."

Yet nearly every pop song since Guthrie's faces the same problem: In most cases, some element besides the vocal melody--a beat, a riff--propels the tune forward. Just try to imagine your own favorites performed a cappella: There are the high-fives (Chuck Berry's "Back in the U.S.A.," P-Funk's "One Nation Under a Groove,"); the protests (Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."); the songs that see America, to quote Key's cousin Fitzgerald, as "something commensurate with [man's] capacity for wonder" (um, "Take Me Home, Country Roads"). As music commensurate with our capacity for patriotism, only "Lift Every Voice" rivals the Great Oxygen Depriver. But until the chastening rod meets a gloomy grave, America will have to earn the right to sing that one.

 
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