Recently, I’ve read articles supporting the idea of dropping our current National Anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and adopting something that reflects those things we claim as our beliefs; our “self-evident truths,” I suppose.
In the articles, there are two reasons given most often for making such a change. First, the fact that Francis Scott Key was himself a slave owner and made it known he viewed Africans in America as a people to be rid of (literally shipped back to Africa) and second, that the third stanza of the song, which is essentially never sung and is little known, contains language interpreted by some as a celebration of slavery and/or that slaves were disposable as long as American soldiers were safe.
Other reasons include the battle description (objectionable due to “glorification of violence”), challenging language (“no one talks that way anymore”), and other things I feel are being drawn from lyrics that are not there and/or are ridiculous and so I won’t waste electrons here.
Unfortunately, Key never left documentation explaining his thoughts. Historians are split in terms of whether the lyrics are condoning slavery or condemning it. Also, there is a political history to the song that implies the lyrics are actually condemning Britain for its use of “freed” slaves in their military ranks during the War of 1812. The song has also been tied to Key’s personal failures in the War of 1812; a way for Key to save face. We’ll never know the truth. In the end, I do not wish to debate the meaning of those lyrics. Choosing a side is speculation at best and none of us is likely to be correct.
Several of the news articles I read suggested “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a replacement for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In 1919 the NAACP (for which the composer was executive secretary) dubbed, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as, “the Negro national anthem”; today it is commonly referred to as the, “Black anthem”. While it may sound petty, isn’t adopting a song labeled as belonging to a particular race, which is how some now refer to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” by definition and accusation, wrong? Additionally, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also contains problematic lyrics. A painful “journey” for those the song represents speaks to the struggles, pain and, “…treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” Finally, the song contains the lyrics, “May we forever stand, True to our God, True to our native land.” Whose God? The Jews? The Muslims? The Christians? The god of those practicing traditional African beliefs? The gods of those practicing Polytheism? The Atheists? Which? Whose? And Native Land? The United States of America? Come now, if those who are screaming to change our anthem are willing to claim a land as theirs that IS NOT and NEVER WAS – for we know whose native land this really is – then aren’t they doing to others – the true Native Americans – exactly what they say has been done to them? And isn’t part of the problem with slavery that people were forcibly taken from THEIR native land? Perhaps the criers are to be vilified just as Key is being now.
If we are to choose a new anthem, shouldn’t it express our “self-evident truths,” and speak to an ideal we aspire to achieve?
In my opinion, neither song, though each beautiful in its own way, is right for what we claim to be our universal beliefs. I believe a new song, one that truly proclaims our vision, should be written and put before the people for approval and then adoption.
And I don’t care who composes it.
Francis Scott Key was white. James Weldon Johnson, author of the poem upon which “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is based, was an African American. And neither writer, in my opinion, hit the proverbial nail on the head. I feel they were both mired in the times in which they lived as evidenced by the lyrics of their songs.
Other alternatives have also been suggested. One is John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
“Imagine” is itself a song with lots of exclusion. No Heaven or Hell? No religion? I feel very strongly about these things. John Lennon was an atheist and changing one’s belief in a deity to a lack of belief in a deity is written into the lyrics. It is part of the “ideal” expressed for a future state. Is that okay with all people? Should we discount the song because the composer believed in nothing beyond his five senses and this life’s experiences? No. We discount NO ONE, right? In total, I can’t argue with much of it, but I can feel excluded by part of it. I don’t think we adopt a song proclaiming atheism, or any other tenet, as our anthem.
There’s another problem with “Imagine.” Like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Lennon’s “Imagine” is bound in time through its very composition. Think of when it was written and released – 1971. I’m old enough to recall the day it hit the radio (AM radio at that!). In 1971, “living for today,” was advocated and proclaimed by those who carried labels like “hippies” and “new age zealots,” among others, and that proclamation is in the lyrics of the song. It literally meant we should live for today. Only today? What about those of us who believe in an eternal life? What about those who believe living for today can have horrible repercussions for others? We need only to look at the state of our nation and world to see what “living for today” can do. “Imagine” is a perfect representation of the time, but only that time.
See, I want to live for today AND all the tomorrows to come; to always be a part of a country that calls to others to live free and equal. I want all to live with the understanding that “equal” and “included” and “respected” and “valued” DOES NOT MEAN we are duplicates of one another. We can live unified but uniquely in our beliefs and heritage and origins. Can words written today really always represent that ideal?
We need an anthem that is timeless.
Perhaps our new anthem should be free of lyrics. I know all music can become anachronistic over time, but I also know that lyrics force this more quickly. Tell me: if “The Star-Spangled Banner” were solely an orchestral piece, would we be having this conversation? Maybe, but it would have a totally different context.
I would submit the newly composed anthem be crafted from the well of our nation’s original musical styles: blues, rock and roll, jazz, folk, country, rap and the first: Native American; among others. There are orchestral pieces already in existence that take bits of our heritage music and combine them into one coherent, and beautiful, piece. Thus, my feeling that whatever piece we adopt, it be free from the shackles of words. Of course, there are those who would complain because it might delay the start of a sporting event but what is an anthem worth? By the way, there are four countries with lyric-free anthems (and one with no official anthem at all). What do they know that we don’t? We would not be alone in our new direction. Would composing such a piece be an easy task? I pity those who would take it on.
Who among us doesn’t carry a scar linked to history? Who among us is truly objective? How does one uplift and create hope in music? Ask Bach or Chopin or Beethoven – they’ve all proven it can be done. Even Key, Johnson and Lennon have done it. And think of it – Martin Luther King, Jr. did it in his “I Have A Dream,” speech. Now there’s a place to draw inspiration from!
[Check out “If I Can Dream,” a song with lyrics drawn directly from King’s speech. It was written by Walter Earl Brown and debuted by Elvis Presley in his 1968 TV special.]
So, how could we approach creating a new anthem?
There are musical pieces commissioned all the time. We could INVITE people of all backgrounds, heritage, faiths and origins – from across the nation – to create and submit their compositions. Heck, why not ask people from around the globe? If we are to be an inclusive and inviting nation, then why not hear what others hear when they think of what this nation promises? After all, Lennon was born in Liverpool, England and never became a US citizen! Once all the submissions were in, it would be a run-off of some sort. Yes, there will be those in the end who didn’t choose the “winning” composition, but isn’t acceptance part of our “self-evident truths”?
How about you? Do you have a suggestion for an anthem? I’d love to hear.
From the beginning of time we have celebrated life in all it’s forms through music. We have put into music our hopes and aspirations. It’s in our nature. Now, we want healing and we want a new direction; a new future and we want true freedom. As a country, we are way overdue providing this for all. Maybe it all comes back to this:
“…love your neighbor as yourself.” [Matt 22:39b]