Time To Get Rid Of The Star Spangled Banner?

After 200 years, Francis Scott Key's most famous work may have outlived its usefulness..

american-flag

Today is the 200th anniversary of the events which led Francis Scott Key to pen The Star Spangled Banner, originally a poem that was eventually set to music and quickly gained popularity in a United States that was already weary from what may be one of the more pointless wars in American history. The story of the song is well known to anyone whose gone to public school in the U.S., of course. In the final hours of a British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, Key saw that the flag that had been raised above the fort had survived the night-long bombardment and helped to repulse the British naval attack on Baltimore. The poem was quickly published throughout the country and, in short order set to music. As it turned, the tune that was used and which has become the bane of singers ever since was a drinking song originally created for a late 18th Century English club called The Anacreontic Society. Given the fact that we have another patriotic song that shares a tune with the national anthem of our former colonial rulers, I suppose that isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.

Over the years, most especially recently, there have been various discussions about replacing The Star Spangled Banner with something more appropriate and, well, musical such as America The Beautiful and, today, Ted Widmer makes that very argument in Politico:

Two hundred years after that long night in Baltimore, is it time to rethink the Star-Spangled Banner? It has its merits—to drown out bad news with bluster, brass and percussion worked in 1814, and the song continues to radiate personality, even as most of us try and fail to sing along with its awkward leaps over one-and-half octaves. It feels right that the city that gave usHairspray also surrendered this essential bit of national theater. The music has entered so deeply into our consciousness that even its parodies can seem beautiful—much as the Jimi Hendrix version, inflammatory at the time, has acquired a great dignity of its own.

But the story of Key’s nearness to slavery cannot easily be forgotten, especially in an era that demands more accountability, and offers to tools to find it. Critics over the years—I am hardly the first—have been brutal about the Star-Spangled Banner’s many shortcomings. The New York Herald Tribune dismissed it as “words that nobody can remember [set] to a tune that nobody can sing.” In 1918, a woman named Kitty Cheatham denounced the words as “German propaganda” (because they undermined the Anglo-American alliance), and saw the music as a product of “darkness,” “degeneracy,” and “the carnal mind.” Christian Science leader Augusta Stetson called it a “barroom ballad composed by a foreigner.” A 1965 writer thought it “as singable as Die Walkure, as American as ‘God Save the Queen'”; the columnist Michael Kinsley has ripped its “empty bravado” and “mindless nonsense about rockets and bombs.”

The “nearness to slavery” that Widmer refers to is the fact that Key himself, like many people who lived in Maryland at the time, was a slave owner and, at least as Widman puts it, was a zealous defender of the institution who would attack those who questioned it. He also happened to be a cousin of Roger Taney, who would eventually become Chief Justice of the United States and author of the Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford. To be honest, I’m not sure what the relevance this has to whether or not the song that Key penned should remain our national anthem. Four of our first five Presidents, and countless numbers of the Founding Fathers, held slaves during their time and we haven’t rejected everything that they produced, so I’m not sure why that matters in the case of Francis Scott Key. Similarly, the fact that some 43 years after the song was written his cousin was the author of one of the most reviled Supreme Court decisions in history doesn’t seem particularly relevant to me either.

Other arguments against the song have included the argument that it is somehow “pro-war,” such as those that Michael Kinsley makes in the article linked above. That strikes me as a patently silly argument given the fact that the song isn’t about the triumph of American arms so much as it is about American forces surviving a British assault. Does that “glorify” war? Maybe in some people’s minds it does, but I just don’t see it.  This particular argument falls apart completely if you bother to read beyond the first stanza of the song, which is generally all that is performed publicly today. The better argument against The Star Spangled Banner is, quite simply not a very good song and its rarely performed very well. More often than not, the song and its odd octave changes lead popular singers who can barely carry a tune to engage in vocal acrobatics that they aren’t capable of. Furthermore, ever since Whitney Houston’ gave the definitive large stadium performance of the song at Super Bowl XXV these same popular singers have tried to turn the National Anthem in to a showcase for their limited vocal talents rather than a patriotic anthem. If we could put an end to that, I’d be all for it.

So, after 200 years, perhaps its time we put Francis Scott Key’s work on the shelf.

FILED UNDER: General
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    It’s really a song that can be sung properly by only a few opera singers because of the octave changes.

    I’d be very unhappy, however, if we switched to “God Bless America,” a song I’ve hated ever since I was a kid.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    Hahaha. If they – whomever “they” are – stopped opening games with national anthem it would cause riots across the country. Darrell Issa would investigate it, and Obama would be impeached (even though he had nothing to do with it.)

  3. rudderpedals says:

    Too soon

  4. Mr. Prosser says:

    I agree that too many singers try and embellish the song, especially amateurs picked to sing at minor league games. The best I ever heard was Robert Merrill who sang it straight and quickly. As to changing to another song, ain’t gonna happen, the best one (America the Beautiful) has God in it.

  5. Eric Florack says:

    The free and the brave?
    Sadly, our home is no longer the home of either one.

  6. CSK says:

    @Mr. Prosser:

    i heartily agree about Merrill.

  7. Tyrell says:

    I agree about Robert Merrill also. The best. Kate Smith was best with “God Bless America”.
    I think that the Anthem should be done only by instruments: a band or trumpet. Too many singers modify it and torture the audience.

  8. Rick Almeida says:

    @Eric Florack:

    If only there were a country worthy of you.

  9. Gustopher says:

    There would never be any agreement on a replacement. You would really need broad agreement to fight against tradition.

    “God Bless America” has too much God. The right wing loves to shove God down people’s throats, but enough people are fed up with that stuff that they wouldn’t be able to slip this one through.

    “America, The Beautiful” has too much environmentalism. And a bit of God.

    “This Land Is Your Land” was written by a commie.

    “Born In The USA” was used by Reagan, but everyone who listened to the lyrics laughed at him for it. But, maybe the Birthers would be really for it to poke the Kenyan in the eye. But, it’s hardly a song extolling the virtues of America at her best.

    I would get a big kick out of “This Land Is Your Land”, because there are so many radically different treatments of it. We could have a national anthem that could be performed in countless different ways — the version by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings is quite excellent. Also, because different performers would be using different sets of lyrics — some including the “private property” verse, some not — and it would really capture the very uniquely American concept of free speech.

  10. Kylopod says:
  11. michael reynolds says:

    I think we should take the Internationale and change the lyrics. It can be sung by your average square-jawed prole, no one’s using it at the moment and it will vaguely piss off Putin.

  12. Jeremy says:

    This whole argument is stupid and is just to get another byline in another magazine.

    But hey if we’re going to change the anthem, I vote for “America Fuck Yeah!”

  13. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Off-handed, but aside from being tainted through its use by a nightmare of a country, the “old” Soviet / new Russian with some words changed anthem is pretty much what an anthem should sound like, IMO.

  14. Rafer Janders says:

    “This Land Is Your Land” or nothing.

  15. Tyrell says:

    @Gustopher: “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood, good but hard to sing. ” God Bless America – again” , done by several singers, including Charlie Daniels. “Coming to America” – a little different, hard to sing, but electrifying when done by Neil Diamond.
    “This Land Is Your Land” – I like the Mormon Tabenacle Choir version, this song is easy to sing.
    Best: “America”, done by Ray Charles.

  16. wr says:

    I vote for Paul Simon’s America, with the increasingly timely lyric about the man in the gabardine suit on the bus actually spying on the singer. Also, how great would it be to hear an entire staduium of football fans singing “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”?

  17. anjin-san says:

    @ Florack

    the brave

    our home is no longer the home

    Why don’t you tell us about one act of bravery on your part in service of our country?

    Talking tough on a blog does not count…

  18. Scott says:

    I would throw in Phil Ochs ” The Power and the Glory” for consideration

    Come and take a walk with me through this green and growing land
    Walk through the meadows and the mountains and the sand
    Walk through the valleys and the rivers and the plains
    Walk through the sun and walk through the rain

    (Refrain)Here is a land full of power and glory
    Beauty that words cannot recall
    Oh, her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom
    Glory shall rest on us all

    From Colorado, Kansas, and the Carolinas too
    Virginia and Alaska, from the old to the new
    Texas and Ohio and the California shore
    Tell me, who could ask for more?

    Refrain

    Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of the poor
    Only as free as the padlocked prison door
    Only as strong as our love for this land
    Only as tall as we stand

    .Refrain

  19. Just Me says:

    I’m weird in that I like the anthem. It is hard to sing and there’s nothing worse than listenig to many Canadian anthem singers sing it too fast and poorly.

    Maybe they should stop singing anthems before sports events (why do they have hat tradition anyway?).

    I think we are stuck with this one because there is no way they can change it to something else and not puss off half the country for choosing the wrong one. At least the one we have has been the anthem for a long time.

    I can think of better things for our government to be doing than trying to find a new anthem.

  20. Andre Kenji says:

    I´m a foreigner and I REALLY like the Star Spangled Banner. It´s lyrics are simple and emotional, it has a simple and a beautiful melody. That´s what we should expect from a national anthem.

  21. John425 says:

    What is sooo tacky about “progressives” is that they think they must change things for the sake of change.
    The National Anthem has stood for 200 years. It is not something that falls off the Top 40 after a few weeks. That is why it has value. It is TRADITION.

  22. Eric Florack says:

    @anjin-san: Obviously, just being conservative is a start, anymore. Believing in what our was founded on. Given what it is up against, that take a fair dash of bravery.

    Being a liberal takes no bravery at all.
    As you prove, continually.

  23. John Peabody says:

    Ooh, careful, John425, before someone points out that the anthem was not declared official until well into the 20th century.

  24. Ben says:

    I’ve always thought the SSB is an atrociously bad song. But, at the same time, it doesn’t have any mentions of god in it, which is a plus. I know that if we ever tried to replace it, all of Jesusland would force us to pick something with god in it. So I’d rather just stick with it.

    Also, agreed with HarvardLaw92 that I’ve always found the Russian anthem to be one of the best. It really is a great melody, regardless of the words, and just sounds like an anthem.

  25. Tyrell says:

    @Ben: Russian anthem – if this is the same as used in czarist Russia, is nice, but not easy to sing. Our church has sung that tune occasionally with different words. Germany’s anthem has the most beautiful tune of any anthem. It was heard often during the World Cup soccer this summer.
    “Battle Hymn of the Republic” could be considered the national hymn: inspiring, played at all national funerals. Nothing like it to stir emotions, memories, and nostalgia.

  26. Ben says:

    @Tyrell:

    Nope, the Czarist anthem was different. I’m talking about the Soviet anthem, which post-USSR Russia continues to use after changing the words to remove all of the revolution/communism stuff.

    Agreed about the German anthem, that one is also beautiful. It’s based on Haydn’s Emperor Quartet.

  27. anjin-san says:

    @ Florack

    Going to need to have your profile in courage translated into English…

  28. Tom Loeza says:

    The words may be historic, but hardly relevant to the 21st century . The rest of the verses get progressively puerile, with the mandatory claim.

  29. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Eric Florack: You have an arrest warrant pending? REALLY?

  30. Dave D says:

    The obvious way to go is Stars and Stripes forever by JPS. No singing, uniquely American and inspirational.

  31. Grewgills says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Obviously, just being conservative is a start, anymore. Believing in what our was founded on. Given what it is up against, that take a fair dash of bravery.

    Obviously bravery is yet another word you have concocted a new definition for. Seriously man, do you really think your reactionary spouting off on the internet requires even a tiny bit of bravery?

  32. michael reynolds says:

    There is no evidence (yet) that the Koch Brothers want this to be the new national anthem. It’s totally true, but there’s no evidence and I want to emphasize that. Yet.

  33. @Dave D:

    Actually, there are words to Stars and Stripes Forever:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stars_and_Stripes_Forever#Sousa.27s_lyrics

  34. anjin-san says:

    I’m going to nominate Land of Hope & Dreams

  35. Just Me says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I didn’t realize there were words to Stars and Stripes but reading them they’re pretty awful for a national anthem-would rather not have an anthem that’s an ode to the flag vs an ode to the country itself.

    But then I’m one of the rare people who like the Star-Spangled Banner and don’t think it needs changing.

  36. Moosebreath says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I’m used to the “web-footed friends” variant of the words to the song mentioned in the wiki article you cited, as my high school band used to sing those words after every time they played the song.

    @Just Me:

    “But then I’m one of the rare people who like the Star-Spangled Banner and don’t think it needs changing.”

    Me too.

  37. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Grewgills:

    Actually I’m quite certain he thinks he’s being brave. Remember we are living under a weak-willed, incompetent complete tyrant whose tyrannical tyranny is ruling every aspect of our lives. Just being able to speak on a forum is evidence of his bravery. Our boys over in Afghanistan have nothing on him.

  38. C. Clavin says:

    @Eric Florack:
    If you hate America so much why don’t you move?
    We’ll do a kick-starter campaign for you.

  39. rudderpedals says:

    Every time one of you brings up the Soviet anthem / The Internationale I’m taken back to the Hunt for Red October film so cut it out please, I saw it a zilllion times.

    When apes get the vote mine’s for This Land is Your Land lyrics set to The Internationale.

  40. Tillman says:

    I’ll nominate this one. Always remember it from Judgment at Nuremberg. (Did I just Godwin the thread?)

    @Just Me:

    Maybe they should stop singing anthems before sports events (why do they have that tradition anyway?).

    I wouldn’t mind it being sung before sports events if they just sang that one song. Nowadays it seems like they include “America the Beautiful” as a prelude, completely unnecessarily. I look around the stands and people are like, “Am I supposed to cover my heart with my hand during this or what? Why is this being sung? It’s a nice song, but why?”

    My mother loves to boast about how she had to memorize the other three stanzas of the Star-Spangled Banner as a kid. Honestly, the second stanza’s neat since the ending of the first is a question (does the flag actually still wave?) that the ending of the second answers. Three and four I could care less about. The fourth stanza, if it was actually popular, would rile up secularists since it’s got the whole In God We Trust line.

    In my ideal America in which I serve as Supreme Overlord, the first two stanzas of the Star-Spangled Banner would be the standard, and they’d be quickly sung Merrill-style, leaving little (but ample!) room for improvisation. Also means Hendrix would have a longer space to work with.

  41. MR X says:

    This is ridiculous. i love the Star Spangled Banner. This slave argument is pure rubbish. Best version is Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73ZsDdK0sTI

  42. pylon says:

    @Just Me: I’d say that US anthem singers butchering Oh Canada far outnumber Canadian singers singing the SSB too fast (what is the “correct tempo”?) or poorly.

    http://thestar.blogs.com/newsnow/2011/02/top-10-worst-anthem-performances.html

  43. Mu says:

    The East German hymn is available, and the guys at the Olympics know how to play it. Can’t be too hard to set some patriotic but God free lyrics to it.

  44. Lenoxus says:

    It seems like most national anthems are interchangeable, apart from references to the local geography. Just a bunch of unfounded assertions of greatness and freedom and perhaps something about trees or mountains.

    So one problem with the Star-Spangled Banner (as with just about all the others) is that it doesn’t give you any sense of what makes this particular country special. That said, it does at least narrate a particular part of our history, and it asks a question, which is quite interesting for national anthem. (The question is whether we can see a particular object in the distance, so it’s not exactly fodder for a great national conversation, but it’s something.)

    My personal ideal American anthem would be about how this is a country whose Constitution inspired the world, whose efforts put people on the moon, and whose flag you are permitted to burn without getting jailed. (Note to the world: if you think some particular quality, e.g. “freedom” or “pluck”, makes your country great, then use the anthem to show, not tell!) Or maybe a sung version of The New Colossus, though its rhyme-scheme makes this difficult (all the ones I’ve found are rhythm-free choral arrangements, not sing-able-by-average-human tunes).

  45. JWH says:

    If it is kept, I don’t care. If it is changed, I don’t care. But if it is changed, Weird Al Yankovic should write the new anthem.

  46. dazedandconfused says:

    My only objection to the SSB is that it’s part of the psy-ops campaign designed to lead the public into believing we won the War of 1812 and away from considering how stupid it was for us to side with Napoleon against Britain in order to annex Canada, primarily. Madison and Jefferson really screwed the pooch, but their personal reputations were of such importance to the party they represented something had to be done to preserve them. This campaign was so successful that even today the vast majority of the US public believes we either won it or it was a glorious draw.

    As a song, it serves well enough.

  47. Tony W says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Believing in what our was founded on. Given what it is up against, that take a fair dash of bravery.

    The man has a point. If you are lamenting the loss of the 3/5 compromise, don’t understand why women’s suffrage was such a big deal, can’t corral Injuns to Oklahoma anymore and it drives you crazy that it would raise eyebrows if the president’s family even had dinner at the White House just 100 years ago (much less live there) – well then that takes some bravery in today’s society.

    Conservatives are just victims, really, of our mean, mean culture.

  48. wr says:

    @anjin-san: Sure, with new lyrics: “This train carries saints and sinners, but it only runs between New York and DC because Republicans in congress slashed all funding for rail travel they don’t use so they could cut taxes for billinonaires.”

    Might need somet tweaking still…

  49. Pharoah Narim says:

    “American the Beautiful” sung by Ray Charles would be nice! I love that Version!

  50. grumpy realist says:

    Personally, I like a song that a) requires someone with vocal ability to sing it well, and b) is based on a drinking song.

    There was a very funny section in one of the Pogo books where Albert the Alligator is complaining about the unsingability of the Star-Spangled Banner, tries to sing it, loses his voice, and ends up having to deal with the consequences (including a hornet that flies into Albert’s speech bubble and takes over making noises for him)

    Walt Kelly was a genius…

  51. Tony W says:

    @wr:

    Republicans in congress slashed all funding for rail travel they don’t use so they could cut taxes for billinonaires.”

    Well, they also wish to protect oil interests for the Koch brothers!