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State of Mind: Oh Say Can You See Tizathee From Here?

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The national anthem got quite a workout during the recent Olympic Games in Tokyo. 

That got me to thinking about the controversy that surfaces from time to time over replacing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with another piece of music, such as “America, the Beautiful.”

As a journalist, I felt it my duty to look into this controversy and provide some insights into the criticisms of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

First, I must admit I have a soft spot for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” because singing it allowed me to skip the third grade. At least that’s how I remember it. 

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During the summer between the second and third grades, my family moved me from the city to the suburbs. At the beginning of the new school year, I found myself standing before my new third-grade classmates belting out the national anthem in a solo and “a cappella” performance. The teacher must have been greatly impressed with my musical genius, because she immediately consulted with the principal, who came to our classroom. I was asked to sing it again. The next thing I knew I was moved to the fourth grade, which was scary because it was filled with “older women” and bullies — and in some cases the older women were the bullies. 

“The Star-Spangled Banner” has only been the official U.S. anthem for 90 of 245 years. In what was probably the highlight of his term in office, President Herbert Hoover signed the congressional proclamation making it so in 1931. Up until that year, the catchy little tune “Hail, Columbia,” which was written for George Washington’s inauguration and of which I am sure we can all hum a few bars, had been the de facto national anthem.

I knew nothing of this back in the fourth grade, of course. I was trying to figure out why I was living in “Tizathee” because another patriotic song we sang in school opened with “My country Tizathee” which was a “sweet land of liberty.”

One argument for abandoning “The Star-Spangled Banner” is that it glorifies war with its references to ramparts, the red glare of the rockets, and bombs bursting. 

As we all know from our third-grade history (well, you may remember your third-grade history — I personally was never exposed to it because I was advanced to the fourth grade for singing the national anthem), the lyrics were written during the War of 1812 by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by British warships.

Key himself is a controversial figure in that he was a slave owner, a strong advocate of the institution of slavery, and, as a district attorney, had suppressed abolitionists. Some historians also claim he publicly criticized slavery and gave free legal representation to some slaves seeking freedom. In other words, he was . . . an attorney.  

It is true if you sing all four stanzas, there are a number of references to war. Some critics also claim racism, elitism, and even sexism are embedded in the third and fourth stanzas. But when was the last time you sang the second, third, and fourth stanzas? For that matter, how often do you go around the house humming the tune? 

And if you think the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are bellicose, compare them with those of another famous national anthem, France’s “La Marseillaise,” which was written about the same time (1792). In “La Marseillaise” there are lines such as “Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras / Égorger nos fils, nos compagnes!” (They come right to our arms / To slit the throats of our sons, our friends!), or “Qu’un sang impur / Abreuve nos sillons!” (May impure blood / water our fields!), or, my personal favorite, “Mais ces despotes sanguinaires, / Mais ces complices de Bouillé, / Tous ces tigres qui, sans pitié, / Déchirent le sein de leur mère!” (But not these bloodthirsty despots, / But not these accomplices of Bouillé, / All of these animals who, without pity, / Tear their mother’s breast to pieces!).

Next to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the lyrics to “La Marseillaise” read like the script to the “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

Another criticism is that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is difficult to sing. It requires a vocal range of one and a half octaves to hit the low at “Oh say can you see,” and then the high at “land of the free . . .” 

But there is a reason it is hard to sing – drunks are not expected to carry a tune. The lyrics by Key were set to the music of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which was a drinking song of the Anacreontic Society, a British “gentlemen’s” club in London. The person after which that society was named, Anacreon, was a Greek from the sixth century BC who specialized in erotic poetry. Indeed, the refrain in the original lyrics to “To Anacreon in Heaven” reads “to entwine the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.” Pretty saucy stuff.

So, which would you rather have for an anthem? A British drinking song named after an ancient Greek famous for his erotic poetry, with lyrics by a 19th century slaveowner that seemingly glorify war, or a song that extols the beauty of America written by a 33-year-old English major after she hiked up Pike’s Peak?

As for me, I’m pulling for Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” And I’m still trying to find Tizathee on a map.