The Life and Times of the Star-Spangled Banner

What if we could pick the national anthem?

The Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem of the United States. It is the law of the land, and it is hallowed by tradition. It is unlikely to change. Yet, many people think that is it not ideal.

Some think it is too war-like. It commemorates a military victory that was extremely minor. It is about the flag. The flag is an important symbol of the country, but should the anthem be about something that is a symbol of what the country is about? Shouldn't the anthem be about what the country is about?

Suppose we were to pick an anthem from scratch, without the baggage of historical precedent. What song would we pick? The Star-Spangled Banner is not the only song with objections. America the Beautiful has all the faults of late Victorian purple poetry. There are way too many adjectives. We want something simpler. America is too devotional. Many Americans are deeply religious, but we believe in separation of church and state; the anthem should have a secular feel to it. Yankee Doodle and This Land is Your Land are good national songs that express the American spirit, but they aren't serious enough. Yankee Doodle is downright silly.

So we don't want something too war-like or too religious. It should be serious, but not take itself too seriously. On the positive side, it should express the American spirit.

More than anything else, America is about liberty. It is a place that people want to go to, and not just a place that people are proud to be from. It is the land of opportunity. Liberty is what provides the opportunity. The prosperity of America derives from that very same liberty. That is what our national anthem should be about. Unfortunately, there is no such song.

Do we have to have just one song? Maybe the idea of America is too big to capture in a single song. America is the country that does things differently from everyone else. Maybe the national anthem is no exception. Different songs can be played on different occasions. Why can't the New York Yankees play Yankee Doodle at the start of the game?

It is very difficult to write a national anthem on purpose. That has been tried. Here is an example of what happened in the 19th century when a contest was held:

William Cullen Bryant served on the committee that evaluated the submissions, and remarked that this attempt had "too much of the Anacreontic spice." I doubt that a modern effort would be more successful.

So we are left with the song that we have. And in some ways, it is a better song than it might appear. Like many Americans, the tune is an immigrant (from Britain) that has been thoroughly Americanized. While it is usually represented as a song that was written on the inspiration of a moment, we know that it took nine years for Francis Scott Key to take the idea he had in When the Warrior Returns and turn it into a high quality song. The incident that resulted in Key being on board the British ship in the first place occurred because some one partied too hard and got into trouble. That is at least a celebration of liberty, in a way. So the song is more of a celebration of the American spirit than might be obvious at first.

The traditional performance of the Star-Spangled Banner is very ponderous. But that is not how the tune was necessarily played in Key's time. When you sing other words to the tune, you can see it in a new way. Maybe we could lighten it up a bit. I don't know that anyone would want to sing it to the tune of Packington, but that is at least possible. But until a song that celebrates freedom and has a properly serious tone comes along, it is a good song. And a serious song about liberty is likely to be difficult to write.

If you would like to write a national anthem, I have some advice for you. Don't try to write a national anthem on purpose. They turn out badly. See the disaster above. But be a competent poet or musician. If inspiration strikes some day, yield to it. Most of the successful anthems were written by people at the margins of musical success, so don't worry about turning out the hits. Few authors had primary careers in entertainment (Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie are exceptions). Many, though not all, could be considered one-hit wonders. Have a strong sense of patriotism, an appreciation of liberty and a love for the diversity of the country. Good luck.