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THE COLUMN: Of Thee I Can't Sing
Michael Walsh • 03 Jan, 2023 • 3 Min Read
There's a better choice for our most patriotic song.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a great nation in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a great national anthem. Such is the case with the great nation known as the United States of America, whose current anthem combines martial words from a war that America basically lost with a rumbustious tune—an old British drinking song—that is impossible for most people to sing. The fact that the first verse ends with a question mark—"O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"—is neither auspicious nor comforting. And when it's mangled like this...
Ouch. Which is a shame, because even though its origins as "To Anacreon in Heaven" suggest the robust and frisky good times of Hogarth, the melody itself is a lovely ballad that requires a tenor with a good top to make its octave-and-a-half range effective in performance. Here's how it should be sung:
Combined with Francis Scott Key's hastily composed poem, "The Defence of Fort McHenry," the piece quickly became known as the "Star Spangled Banner" and was adopted by the U.S. Navy in 1899 and played nationwide by military bands after a 1916 executive order by Woodrow Wilson; in 1918 it was played during the seventh-inning stretch at the World Series. Finally, it was declared by Congress to be the official national anthem of the United States in 1931, and its status was signed into law by Herbert Hoover.
It's had a great run, but let's face it: it's time to replace it. It's been bludgeoned and butchered into non-existence, its melody rendered unrecognizable by the melismas and wails that now ornament it. Give it back to the military bands, which can actually play it, and place Key's poem under glass at the National Archives in perpetuity. But replace it with what?
Over the years, a number of songs have functioned as an unofficial anthem, including "My Country 'Tis of Thee" (sung to the tune of the British anthem, "God Save the King"), and "Hail, Columbia." Many have long advocated that the pastoral "America the Beautiful," first published in 1910, be our anthem. And the late Ray Charles certainly makes a convincing case for it, wailing melismas and all:
But that ode to the beauty of the American continent's still not quite right. Nobody's afraid of purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain. Instead, there's another long-popular patriotic song, "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean," that's also functioned as the American anthem; it is perhaps the most quintessentially American tune of the bunch, Have a listen:
It's so American, in fact, that it often pops up elsewhere as an instant and unmistakable signal of national pride: in The Music Man, for example, or in many of the works of the early 20th-century composer Charles Ives. In the finale of Ives' great quodlibet Symphony No. 2, it blares out in the brass as a counterpoint to the principal theme on its way to one of the most rousing endings in the symphonic literature. Here's the finale, with all of Ives' borrowing marked, in a performance by Leonard Bernstein at his hammy best that ends with the greatest raspberry in musical history:
There's plenty of fightin' words in the lyrics, too:
O Columbia! the gem of the ocean,
The home of the brave and the free,
The shrine of each patriot's devotion,
A world offers homage to thee;
Thy mandates make heroes assemble,
When Liberty's form stands in view;
Thy banners make tyranny tremble,
When borne by the red, white, and blue.
𝄆 When borne by the red, white, and blue. 𝄇
Thy banners make tyranny tremble,
When borne by the red, white and blue.
Put those sentiments together with the stirring melody and you've got a winner, methinks. Not too belligerent, appropriately celebratory, a paean to Liberty, now under attack by our domestic enemies across the aisle: the line, "thy banners make tyranny tremble when borne by the red, white and blue" surely is a message for our times. Just don't tell Merrick Garland, the FBI, or anybody in the, you know, District of Columbia.
So who's with me? Time to retire the "Star Spangled Banner" except perhaps at baseball games and bring on "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean" as a reminder of the course of America's greatness, and the promise it still holds for the future, if we can keep it.
Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and a foreign correspondent for Time Magazine. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints, and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace and its sequel, The Fiery Angel. Last Stands, a study of military history from the Greeks to the present, was published by St. Martin's Press in December 2019. He is also the editor of Against the Great Reset: 18 Theses Contra the New World Order, published on Oct. 18, 2022. Follow him on Twitter: @theAmanuensis