If you watched the Olympics recently, you got to hear the national anthems of a lot of countries. If you happen to have won a gold medal, you stood tear-streaked at the podium, feeling both the thrill of triumph and the surge of pride that comes with representing your country, as the stirring strings of your anthem played for the world to hear. And, if you aren’t an athlete, you were thinking about what all these anthems represent.
In the United States, the national anthem is the Star-Spangled Banner, and it sometimes plays an ambiguous role in national life. If you’re traveling to America, you might be surprised that I would say it is ambiguous, since you hear it before every sporting event from high school to professional, and many, many other occasions.
But there are many people who question whether it should be our national anthem, or, indeed, if it is even a good song. It has a very interesting history, which is taught to American students at a very young age, but would be instructive for international students to know this story. During the War of 1812, a still-young United States was once again doing battle with the British, from whom it was recently and bloodily liberated.
The song is based on a poem written during the war, by Francis Scott Key. At the time, Baltimore was a key port city, and Fort McHenry was tasked with its defense. On the night of September 13th, and for the next 25 hours, a fierce battle raged between the fort and British gunships, representing the most powerful navy the world had ever seen. On the morning of the 15th, as the bombs faded, Key looked into the harbor and saw that the American flag, tattered and torn, riddled with shot, was still flying, and penned those immortal words…
Oh say, can you see/by the dawn’s early light…
Now, as a poem it is very good: evocative, with stirring imagery befitting a young nation standing tall against a vastly more-powerful enemy. But does it work as a song? Key wrote it thinking of a popular drinking melody used in many different songs of the time, and in his head jammed in words that might roughly fit. That lack of cohesion explains why there are so many interpretations of the tune, including, maybe most famously, by Jimi Hendrix.
But there are many who say that because it is so difficult to sing means it might be time for a change. Others argue that there are songs that aren’t about explosions and war that we should embrace. However, most people are happy the way it is. And, since it can be left to so many different interpretations it might be considered a symbol of its democratic nature. But if America ever did decide to change the national anthem, there are a few popular choices.
God Bless America
A quintessential American song, seen as stirring and inspirational, and written as an authentic love of country. The song perfectly captures the beauty and vastness of the country, from the mountains to the prairies, to the ocean, And best of all- it was written by an immigrant, Irving Berlin, a man who came to America and became successful through hard work and perseverance. It might not make a national anthem, but it is one of the great love songs ever written- from a man to a land, and thanks God for it all.
My Country, ‘Tis of Thee
A low-key, non-aggressive song about freedom, liberty and nature. It has a slight drawback in that the tune is to “God Save the Queen”, which is awkward when it comes to American independence (and shows that back then tunes were interchangeable). Despite that, its pleasant, non-aggressive vibe is appealing.
Battle Hymn of the Republic
Kind of the opposite of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” in terms of bellicosity, which is odd considering it was written by a pacifist. But the cause for the song was ending slavery, and this was the anthem of the Union side of the American Civil War. Bold, bellicose, determined to let justice win, but with an undercurrent of deep mourning about the violence, it is hard to listen to this without wanting to march. Here’s a version by Mr. Johnny Cash, though also check out a full choir version.
This Land is Your Land
A subversive choice, this Woody Guthrie classic was written in response to the Great Depression and what he saw as the little guy not getting a “fair shake”. It has been sanitized, but it is an angry song. But it is angry because it sees America not as a bad place, but as one that isn’t living up to its ideals, and urges it to do so. Pete Seegar played it with some friends at the Obama inauguration, and it has always been an American folk classic
If there is one leading contender for a new national anthem, though, it would likely be America the Beautiful. It captures everything that’s great about America, and is a truly beautiful song. In my life, I’never met anyone who didn’t hold this song close to their heart and sing it with pride. Ray Charles, an iconic American songwriter and musician, sang perhaps the nation’s favorite version of the song.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.