So, the Winter Olympics 2014 are concluded. The USA finished in fourth place behind Canada in third place, Norway in second place, and Russia in first place. We were fourth not only in total medals, but also in gold medals. Although the USA athletes won a total of 9 gold medals, I have to say, I was a little disappointed that we didn’t do as well as expected. But there’s always 2018.
Even though I did not see all of the medal ceremonies involving USA gold, I did see some, and was pleased to see that more of our athletes decided to sing our national anthem this time as it was played. This is a vast improvement over the last olympics, where the athletes seemed to not know that the anthem actually had words. Perhaps this improvement had to do with the scathing e-mail I sent to the American OC after the Winter Olympics of 2010 voicing my concern regarding the lack of singing by American athletes. Or maybe not.
On some level I understand the reluctance to sing our national anthem. It is a very difficult tune to sing. It spans one and a half octaves, and takes a real pro to pull off the “O’er the land of the free” phrase. It also strikes me that these athletes may feel as I do that it doesn’t make sense that our national anthem is about war. More specifically, the War of 1812.
The poem that became our national anthem was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, after he had witnessed the bombardment by British war ships during the Battle of Fort McHenry. He was forced to watch this battle from aboard a British ship, where he had gone to negotiate the release of some United States prisoners. It was set to the tune of a popular British song the “Anacreontic Song” written by British composer John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London.
Are you beginning to get my drift?
In 1916 (over a hundred years later) President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order establishing “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem, but it wasn’t until 1931 that an act of Congress made it official. See, things weren’t any better in the “good old days.”
Further research has revealed that other countries have national anthems that are not about war. For instance, the Canadian national anthem, which I enjoyed so much during the 2010 Winter Olympics, has such nice phrases as, “Our home and native land” and “God keep our land glorious and free.” The Chinese anthem says, “Our aim shall be to found a free land, world peace be our stand…be earnest and brave, your country to save.”
The Germans sing, “We stand together as brothers…inspire us to noble deeds our whole life long.” Even our arch rival, Russia, uses language that speaks to “our sacred state, our beloved country” and then states that there is “plenty of room for dreams and for life,” and ends with “Long live our country! We are Proud of you!”
Now I know that we do not fully agree with the political and ethical direction of all these countries, but this post is not about international relations. It is about the question, “Why is our national anthem about war?”
There seem to be so many better alternatives. “America the Beautiful” was written in 1893 by Katherine Lee Bates and set to music by church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward. It has words like “crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.” Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” in 1918, and ended the song with, “My home sweet home.” “My Country Tis of Thee” written in 1831 by Samuel Francis Smith uses the same melody as the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen.” So what? I would even be in favor of a more modern song, such as Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be an American.” …”Where at least I know I’m free.”
But until our United States Congress gets tired of “rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” and decides to act (boy,that’s a stretch), I suppose we will continue to turn red in the face and strain our voices as we sing “O’re the laand of the freeeeeeeeeee!” WHEW! “And the home of the brave.”
What a marvelous musical history lesson. A national referendum ( as done in Switzerland) with a few suggested alternatives for change would be most interesting and welcome. As you correctly indicate, we already have several wonderful selections from which to choose. But change is often difficult, if not painful for some. In a discussion a few years ago on just this topic that was becoming “lively”, one individual brought it to a close by declaring, “If it was good enough for George Washington, it’s good enough for me!”