When I was in kindergarten and grammar school, in the early 1940s, we often sang other patriotic songs as well; “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.” I especially liked the latter, and still do. Here’s the first stanza:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
Even as five- and six-year-olds we could sing these words from memory. I felt I could actually see the land “from sea to shining sea.” Sometimes we had the printed lyrics and could read and sing other three stanzas, which can be seen here
I have lived fourteen years in Sweden. During this time I haven’t participated in an event where the Star-Spangled Banner has been sung, until I recently attended the high school graduation ceremony of my granddaughter Sydney, in San Jose, California. Something didn’t feel right: “And the rocket’s red glare/the bombs bursting in air” were difficult to utter, although “the land of the free and the home of the brave” still brought tears to my eyes, remembering stories of our founding patriots who pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor“; and, in having known warriors and veterans, some wounded, since World War Two.
I’ve lived with this dissatisfaction for many decades, but upon watching and hearing Dr. Kevin Cosby speak, on live TV, at the memorial service of Muhammad Ali yesterday, I decided to make public my dissatisfaction and propose a new official anthem for the United States of America.
Dr. Cosby is head of Simmons College and senior pastor of St. Stephen Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He delivered an oration and eulogy which was spell-binding. One of its many elements was a reference to a portion of the third stanza of the “Star-Spangled Banner”:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
This reference, as Rev. Cosby points out, shows how slavery was an accepted social and legal fact at the time of its writing, contributing to the “nobody-ness” of the former Africans who were now in America but recognized as having only three-fifths the personhood of other Americans, as set forth in the original Constitution of the United States. The abolition of involuntary servitude and the granting of full rights under the Constitution for former slaves were not assured until the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, all finally ratified by the states by 1870. (Source)
The words of what was to become, one hundred seventeen years later, our national anthem are from “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, a poem written on September 13, 1814 by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. Key was inspired by the large American flag flying triumphantly above the fort during the American victory. (Source).
In addition to the anachronisms in the third stanza and throughout our anthem, it is notoriously hard to sing. Professional and amateur singers have been known to forget the words, which is one reason the song is sometimes pre-recorded and lip-synced. Other times the issue is avoided by having the performer(s) play the anthem instrumentally instead of singing it. The pre-recording of the anthem has become standard practice at some ballparks, such as Boston’s Fenway Park. (Source).
As I earlier said, I now live in Sweden. I occasionally hear my new country’s anthem sung (literal translation):
Thou ancient, Thou free, Thou mountainous north
Thou quiet, Thou joyful [and] fair!
I greet thee, loveliest land upon earth,
/:Thy sun, Thy sky, Thy climes green.:/
Thou thronest on memories of great olden days,
When honoured Thy name flew across the earth,
I know that Thou art and wilt remain what thou werest,
/:Yes, I want to live, I want to die in the North.:/
(Note: I remain an American citizen).
The first verse reminds me of “America the Beautiful” where the physical vastness and beauty of the land is recognized first. It will be no surprise, therefore, that I now recommend we change our national anthem to “America the Beautiful… and I already have an endorsement from Ray Charles.