I have a confession to make: I’m not crazy about our National Anthem. Something about it has never quite resonated with me.
“The Star Spangled Banner” was written as a poem in 1814 during the shelling of Fort McHenry, complete with bombs and rockets and tattered flags. I’ll give you that it’s a great military song, though. As well as a marching band ace-in-the-hole, and the perfect pump-you-up for a sporting event. But it doesn’t really have anything to do with the way I personally feel about my country.
Or maybe my problem is with the melody, and the fear I have for anyone trying to hit that high note on the word “free” during a live performance. The whole tune’s tough, with a range that most people don’t have—if you really listen, we tend to drop an octave for the “rocket’s great glare,” and then go back up for “oh say does that.” That’s a lot of work. And when a song’s that much work, you tend to lose the point it was trying to make.
A little history? That particular melody was first published sometime around 1780 as “To Anacreon in Heaven” for the Anacreontic Club of London. This club was a group of wealthy men who met to celebrate music, food and drink—so basically it’s the tune to a British drinking song. Which makes sense when you picture a bunch of hammered aristocrats with rosy noses, raising their glass as they all head for that high note.
Nevertheless, the melody became popular in America during the War of 1812 and several Americans wrote patriotic songs to it—the most famous of whom was Francis Scott Key. When the sheet music was published in 1815 the name was changed from “Defense of Fort M’Henry” to “The Star Spangled Banner.” The song was first adopted by the army and navy as the national anthem, and then President Hoover signed a bill in 1931 making its status official. And thus marked the beginning of an entire country’s strained warbling before every kickoff, first pitch and national ceremony.
This hilarious audio clip from The Naked Gun of Leslie Nielsen singing the most messed-up version ever still makes me chuckle:
But there was another song at that time being advocated as our national anthem before Hoover closed the door on it: “America the Beautiful.” It started as a poem written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates, a professor at Wellesley College, during a trip to Colorado Springs. Of the inspiration behind it she wrote: “One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”
Now that resonates with me.
So this 4th of July, all day, I’ll be playing Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful,” a song that describes the beauty and diversity of this land. That reminds us of people’s footsteps who came before us. That uses the words “good” and “brotherhood” and “dreams” and “grace.” That tells of the heroes who loved their country “more than life.” And Ray’s performance of it is so moving that it pretty much sums up what this country means to me: endless hope and possibility.
And that’s the mark of a great song.
And an even greater national anthem.
Happy 4th of July, everyone.