For starters, it’s a waltz. Nobody, but nobody else has a national anthem that’s a waltz. All right, there’s “God Save the Queen,” but that’s it. The rest are proper marches or noble hymns, not froofy little dance ditties.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start over.
Every once in a while, Congress considers a bill to replace The Star-Spangled Banner as our national anthem on the grounds that it’s too militaristic to keep. The bill is defeated on the grounds that it’s too traditional to dump. If you do something long enough, goes the reasoning, it becomes a good thing, even if it’s a bad thing.
Well I’m a genuine professor of music, and I say there’s more wrong with our national song than the fact that it’s militaristic. By the end of this tirade, you’ll join me in writing your representative so the bill can be raised and defeated yet again. Here we go.
1. It’s militaristic. Well it is. Why crow about rockets and bombs when we could celebrate spacious skies and amber waves? Not that I have any particular alternative song in mind, you understand.
2. The War of 1812? Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” commemorates the siege of Fort McHenry during that most heartpoundingly memorable of our national military conflicts, the War of 1812. Who could ever forget the Chesapeake-Leopard incident, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the traitorous clamor of the Hartford Convention…
Look, it was a slightly odd war. The Brits had been boarding our ships looking for deserters, and we asked them to stop. They wouldn’t, so we declared a war that ended three years later in a complete draw. The stuff of anthems? I think not. (And the 1812 Overture, by the by, our Fourth of July firework favorite, has nothing to do with the War of 1812. It was written by a Russian to commemorate the forced retreat of Napoleon from Moscow. But that’s an entirely separate rant.)
3. It’s unsingable. The range is too wide – an octave and a fifth, from middle B-flat (on “say”) to darned-high F (on “glare” and “free”). That’s why ballpark smart-alecks do a falsetto yodel up to double-darned-high B-flat on “land of the free” – to give the impression they really could have handled that high F, but they’re just, you know, messin’ around.
4. Bad text-setting. Granted, this is a bit on the esoteric side, but there’s a thing called text setting – the “fit” between music and words. In the middle section of our national anthem, the band or orchestra usually gets really quiet – right when we’re singing about rockets glaring and bombs bursting. The music contradicts the words. That’s bad text setting.
5. Did I mention it’s a waltz? Music with beats in groups of two or four can be many things – moving (America the Beautiful); peaceful (Pachelbel’s Canon); stirring (The Marseillaise, the national anthem of France – gory militarism, sure, but boy howdy, it’s stirring); sensuous (Girl from Ipanema); or even an electrifying thrill ride (The Macarena). But waltz time just goes oom-pa-pa.
6. The tune is English. Lemme think – just who were we fighting in 1812? The hated Costa Ricans? The dreaded Laplanders? No, it was the English. So when we dug deep into our repertoire for a tune that matched the metrical structure of the poem Francis Scott Key had written commemorating our victory over the English, we chose “To Anacreon in Heaven” – an English drinking song.
7. IT’S A DRINKING SONG. “To Anacreon in Heaven” was written in London in the 1770s by members of the Anacreontic Society, an upper class men’s club that met at the Crown and Anchor Tavern to sing the praises of…well, I’ll let the text of their naughty little number speak for itself. Here’s the first verse of the original lyrics – you know the tune:
To Anacreon, in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be,
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian –
Voice, fiddle and flute, No longer be mute,
I’ll lend ye my name, and inspire ye to boot...
And, besides, I’ll instruct ye, like me, to entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.
So Anacreon, a Greek lyric poet of the 6th century BC, approves the use of his name and instructs the “sons of harmony” to “entwine the myrtle of Venus” – the goddess of love – “with Bacchus’s vine” – the god of wine. He orders them, in short, to have drunken sex.
In subsequent verses, Zeus is made furious by the news of the proposed entwining, convinced that the goddesses will abandon Olympus in order to have sex with drunken mortals. But the king of the gods is laid low with diarrhea and, fleeing his citadel with his “nine fusty maids,” is thereby rendered unable to countermand the order.
I couldn’t make this stuff up on my best day.
Yes, the tune had other lives in the intervening years. It was exported to the United States as early as 1798 and reset to various lyrics, including that old toe-tapper Adams and Liberty. But don’t you think the original use kind of – I don’t know – adheres a bit? No matter how much time passes, I don’t expect Sir Mix-a-Lot’s I Like Big Butts will ever give birth to a hymn tune, no matter what other incarnations it has in the meantime.
8. We did without it for over 150 years. Though Key’s poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” was around from 1814 and even got the tune stuck to it shortly thereafter (as a spritely dance number), it wasn’t adopted as the national anthem until – any guesses? – 1931. This ancient, venerable tradition was born the same year as my dad. Prior to that it was just another national song, on par with “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “Hey Nonnie Noo, I’m a Yankee Too!” (Okay, I made that one up.) Before that, the United States of America had no official national anthem. Even Estonia beat the pants off us. They got theirs in 1869 – and not from a barroom floor, I’d wager.
So why not give an aggressive, unsingable, relatively-recently-adopted, ill-constructed descendant of a raunchy bar ballad turned celebration of obscure military stalemate the heave-ho?
Because it’s tradition, silly.