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Our Unsingable Anthem

by Howard Fast

Every morning, at the school I attended as a child, we held assembly. The school was PS 46 in New York City, an ancient building built in the 1850s, turned into a hospital during the Civil War, and then restored as a school after the war. For all that, it was a fine building, spotlessly clean, with a student body well-behaved, in awe of our teachers, and at least 60 percent were the children of Irish, Jewish and Polish immigrants.

Each morning, the walls of the classrooms were rolled back, turning the entire first floor into an assembly hall. At each assembly, two songs were sung by the student body, the first a hymn, always a Psalm of David, such as "The Lord is My Light and My Salvation" - and in closing we sang the national anthem. No one ever protested the fact that we opened the day with a religious song, nor can I imagine that any harm came of it.

The national anthem gave us a sense of the country we lived in, a feeling of warmth and love and respect. The words:

Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountains' majesty above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.
There were other verses, but that is enough for you to see the nature of it.

Now, do you raise an eyebrow? What am I talking about? The national anthem is "The Star Spangled Banner."

Yes, now; but not then. Before March 3, 1931, when an act of Congress replaced it with "The Star Spangled Banner," we were taught and we believed that "America the Beautiful" was our national anthem, although at times it alternated with "America," the first line of which was: "My country, 'tis of thee," sung to the tune of "God Save the King." This latter song was understandably an anathema in New York City with its huge Irish population.

"The Star Spangled Banner" was composed on Sept. 14, 1814, by Francis Scott Key, who was on board a British warship that was bombarding Fort McHenry outside Baltimore. Key was on a diplomatic mission, which deprived him of liquor - he usually was said to have been drunk 24 hours a day - and in his hour of sobriety he paraphrased a British drinking song, called "Anacreon in Heaven." (Anacreon was the Greek god of wine.) He was said to have admitted that nobody could actually carry the melody while sober.

Not only is the melody an awful burden to foist on a nation, but the words are meaningless today:

Oh, say, can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.
You know the rest, and in the world we live in today, what possible sense does it make? The argument goes that it is hallowed - but who hallowed it?

When World War I broke out, Woodrow Wilson was president. He had a very opinionated wife who felt she was an authority on music as well as everything else. When it became evident that, sooner or later, the United States would have to enter the war, she declared to her husband that "America the Beautiful" was too peaceable and non-military to serve as the national anthem of a country about to embark on a bloody war.

In 1916, her husband bowed to her wishes and issued a presidential order that all Army and Navy bands were to cease playing "America the Beautiful" and play instead "The Star Spangled Banner."

People in the world of music objected vehemently that it made no sense to force on people a song that was almost unsingable. But Mrs. Wilson was not to be deterred, and it might just be that her husband's ear for music was not the best. I have no knowledge on that score.

I write the above in the forelorn hope that I may live to see a day when the national anthem is a song of hope and vision and brotherhood, rather than the parody of a barroom ballad that it is today.

Page D-3 of the Sunday, 6 December 1992 (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal
(©1992, Greenwich Times)