In Search of a True National Anthem

Throughout the most recent football season Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49’ers declined to stand for the Star Spangled Banner. Football being our national religion, certain politicians have sought to frame this as a sacrilegious act. Their idea of patriotism is wearing flag lapel pins as they sing the praises of family values while simultaneously gleefully mugging it up for the cameras in their attempt to void the health coverage of too many actual American families. As a side note, Mr. Kaepernick, a once promising young quarterback who is not the player he once was after surgery but who still has some ”game”  left in him as evidenced by the very decent year he had for a very bad team, has been having difficulty finding takers in his free agency year, despite the fact that many of the quarterbacks sparking the interest of teams in need at the position either as a starter or first backup do not have nearly the talent or stats of the former star and now solid professional. It appears freedom of expression is not a quality valued in the NFL.

The first amendment exists principally for the protection of unpopular speech. Popular speech requires no protection. If we are to “secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterityas stated in the constitution’s preamble then the occasional push back against perceived injustice should not only be tolerated but encouraged as a duty of conscience.  If not, our founding documents are nothing more than museum pieces, artifacts existing solely for the propagandist purposes of forces ever at the ready to twist like a pretzel the true intentions of the founders.

And so “when in the course of human events”  any citizen takes action to “preserve and protect” these rights whether we agree with their actions or not we should celebrate the fact that this ability still exists in this country as opposed to supposed democracies like Turkey, Venezuela and Russia. Protest of Mr. Kaepernick’s type requires a rare courage, not found in the xenophobic speeches of too many who embrace not the principles of liberty and justice for all, but too often a dystopian nationalism reminiscent of Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s and we all know what that led to.

Surely there is nothing wrong with wearing a flag lapel pin. Surely there is nothing wrong with having values that embrace families. Surely disagreement over the possible solutions to our problems and the root causes of them should not be met with automatic barriers to discussion. But “all” families have value(s) and symbols of patriotism resonate with me more when the person wearing them is not using them as mere props in the celebration of their own narcissism and megalomania, desecrating their true meaning in the process.

There was once a common expression in political discourse- The loyal opposition. Inherent in it was the idea that we are not necessarily disloyal or UN-American just because we do not agree. This saying has all but disappeared from the vernacular and it saddens me.

Mr. Kaepernick refused to stand for a National Anthem that he no longer felt represented him and many others. It was not until 1931 that legislation was signed by President Herbert Hoover to officially proclaim Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner” as our National Anthem. Before that time we did not have one.

This particular song has a history that one should wince at in the context of the principles it purports to represent. To begin with the tune is that of an old English drinking song (To Anacreon in Heaven). Francis Scott Key, the composer of its lyrics was a slave owner who believed that Africans were not full-fledged human beings and in his position as the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia prosecuted cases against slaves and freed men. But Mr. Key was not unlike many other “civilized” people of his era. And while he was a slave owner himself he did recognize the cruelties of slavery and advocated for the freedom of Africans so that they would be appropriated back to Africa. In fact he also represented pro bono more than a few slaves seeking their freedom. He believed the institution was immoral yet he kept a small number of slaves himself as matter of economic survival in a system he felt tethered to. He was a complex figure who should not be more harshly demonized than other whites of his era like Thomas Jefferson, who also held slaves.

However complex Mr. Key himself was his song is even more so. Its range makes it difficult to sing. Leave the tough stuff to the likes of Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming. They sing and we listen. Anthems should be musical communions of patriotic expression. They should not require a musical degree of difficulty the equivalent of a Simone Biles vault. Participation and performance should not embarrass professional singers devoid of operatic skills in front of thousands of people at a ballpark. People do not come to sporting events to be tortured by the likes of Roseanne Barr screeching through the lyrics of a song she has no right to even be attempting in this situation.

“The perilous fight”, “The rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” conjure glorious images of the flag surviving a tremendous assault. But isn’t there more to the glory of America than the violence indicated in those lyrics? Aren’t we meant to interpret the assault on the flag as a metaphor for an assault on our freedoms? Shouldn’t those ideals rather be what we celebrate in a national anthem?

The later verses of The Star Spangled Banner, which most people are unfamiliar with, reveal hostility to people whose ancestors are now our fellow citizens. How can we expect those who are demonized and dismissed as enemies in a song written by a slave owner to willingly participate in the ceremonial aspects of such an anthem, particularly now, in the face of so much institutional bias and violence perpetrated against them? This form of protest is not an expression of contempt for this country or for the values for which it stands. It may be viewed instead as an act aimed at holding us to the higher standards children claim allegiance to every day. They are not pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth but rather to principles the banner represents. Mr. Kapaernick is not suggesting treason or sedition. Surely, if the former Governor of a very large state, one time presidential candidate and Dancing with the Stars contestant (flag lapel pin and all) who currently oversees the US Dept. of Energy can publicly suggest secession then Colin Kaepernick can take a knee for free expression.

A national anthem should be sung from a collective heart firm in the belief that despite our many flaws, we remain that “last best hope on earth” the 16th president spoke of and that the founders in all their rhetorical glory and practical imperfections imagined. Our greatness is not in need of restoration. We are and always have been a nation capable of great elasticity, growth, compassion and hope. We have not been relieved of our right to vote, our standard of living while rife with inequity is still relatively decent overall. The right to protest is still bequeathed to all of us including famous quarterbacks. We have endured from the start a revolution against the mightiest force in the world at the time, a bloody civil war and the horrible Jim Crow laws which followed, the shame of Wounded Knee, WWI, WWII, The Korean conflict, Vietnam and the deep divisions it caused, Desert Storm, Desert Shield, 911, Iraq, Afghanistan, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma City, Newtown, Orlando and innumerable challenges from many enemies both foreign and domestic. We endure. That is US.  We may be flawed but the nobility of what we aspire to is not.

I am not the first to propose a new national anthem. God Bless America and America the Beautiful are most frequently mentioned as replacements. Of the two, I prefer America the Beautiful (especially as done by Ray Charles) although both of them cast a far more elegant image of the majesty of America than the Star Spangled Banner does,  with notes of oceans white with foam, mountains and prairies, spacious skies and amber waves of grain.  America the Beautiful gently suggests the true beauty of the nation’s potential, The US of us “Crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea”.  However both songs are a product of another day, we need an anthem that reflects our past as well as our evolution.

So, how do we do this?  How about a competition where anyone, whether they play in a garage band, a school orchestra, a barber shop quartet, or even just take weekly piano lessons at home, EVERYBODY is invited to contribute a submission within two years? The competition should be closed to big name recording artists and other top industry people. They instead would comprise a blue ribbon panel to be culled from a vast myriad of musical genres. The panel would create the criteria for the submissions, length, format etc. All submissions should be judged, no matter what style as accessible to all for the purposes of collective participation.

After a period of time the panel would select 100 or so songs for the final cut. Then the rest of the nation could join in the selection process. Make it a live weekly TV event like The Voice or American Idol.  At the end of a year there would be a select group of finalists.

The winner as well as the finalists might be awarded prizes for their time and talent but it is important that no one OWN the song. The song should be the property of the people of the United States of America. No one should be able to collect royalties from it.

In a period of 25-30 years we could repeat the process, reflecting the sensibilities of that generation.

Maybe singing is better than yelling. Fear, bigotry and distrust will always have their disciples, incapable of seeing the person across the table as anything other than the enemy. Perhaps in musical communion we can create something we can all feel good about standing for together in this “last best hope on earth”.

As Woody Guthrie once sang: “This land was made for you and me.”

2 thoughts on “In Search of a True National Anthem

  1. “But “all” families have value(s) and symbols of patriotism resonate with me more when the person wearing them is not using them as mere props in the celebration of their own narcissism and megalomania, desecrating their true meaning in the process.”—- Thank you, Tom!


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