The Case Against the Star-Spangled Banner
It’s a waltz, for starters. Nobody else has a national anthem that’s a waltz. Fine, there’s “God Save the Queen,” but that’s it. The rest are proper marches or noble hymns, not prancy little dance ditties.
Lemme start over.
When Tom Harkin gave his farewell address to the Senate last December, he mentioned something that’s been a dream of his for years: replacing our current National Anthem with something better. Every once in a while, someone introduces a bill to do just that, usually based on the current anthem’s militarism or unsingability.
The case against the Star-Spangled Banner starts there, but there’s much more wrong with our national song. By the end of this post, I hope you’ll join me in writing your representatives so the bill can be raised and defeated yet again.
Here are nine reasons to be all-done with The Star-Spangled Banner.
1. It’s militaristic.
Well it is. Why sing about rockets and bombs when we could celebrate spacious skies and amber waves? Not that I have any particular replacement in mind.
Granted, the militarism of the SSB pales in comparison to the most bloodthirsty national anthem on Earth, “La Marseillaise” (shudder). While it’s musically magnifique, the French anthem is a festival of rage and gore, including throat-cutting, watering the furrows of the Homeland with the impure blood of enemies, and the children of France yearning to join their ancestors in their coffins.
Ours celebrates surviving an assault, not slaughtering the foe, I’ll give it that. So it’s not as militaristic as La Marseillaise, which is like not being as rude as Stalin.
2. 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 wise guys do a falsetto yodel up to double-high B-flat on “land of the freeee” – to give the impression that they really could have held that F without cracking, but they’re just, you know, messin’ around.
3. Seriously, the War of 1812?
Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” commemorates the siege of Fort McHenry during that most heart-poundingly 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 an odd war. The British 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 draw. Not really the stuff of anthems, in my humble. (And the 1812 Overture, by the way, our 4th of July favorite, doesn’t have anything 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 a separate facepalmer.)
4. It’s not militaristic enough.
If you’re going to write about an artillery bombardment, bring it. Instead, right when we’re singing about rockets and bombs, the band goes quiet and shifts to the woodwinds. Here’s the US Marine Band depicting a naval assault:
The music doesn’t fit the text. Not technically the fault of the song itself, but it’s woven so deep into the arrangement tradition by now that I’ll sustain the objection.
5. “Bombs bursting” can hardly be said, much less sung.
Ever notice that the crisp dotted eighth-sixteenth of the first stanza (O-o say and By the dawn’s) gets ironed out to two eighth notes in the middle of the verse? Sometimes you still get the dotted rhythm for And the rock-, but no one has tried to sing The bombs burst- in a dotted rhythm since the mass lip-mangling incident at Game 3 of the 1937 World Series. You may have noticed that ambulances now attend every sporting event where the National Anthem is sung, just in case someone tries it again.
6. 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); sensuous (Girl from Ipanema); or even an electrifying thrill ride (The Macarena). But waltz time just goes oom-pa-pa.
7. The tune is English.
Who were we fighting in 1812? The hated Costa Ricans? The dreaded Laplanders? No, it was the English. So when we dug 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.
8. 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, let’s just see. Here’s the first verse of the 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 BCE, 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 tells 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 wasted 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 setting kind of, I don’t know – adheres a bit? No matter how much time passes, I don’t expect “I Like Big Butts” will ever give rise to a hymn tune, no matter what other incarnations it has in the meantime.
9. It’s not sacred. In fact, we did without a national anthem 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), it wasn’t adopted as the national anthem until 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!”, which doesn’t even exist. Before that, the United States of America had no official national anthem. Even Estonia beat the pants off us. They got their anthem in 1869 – and not from a barroom floor, I’ll bet.
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.