Monday, July 13, 2009

Star Spangled Subversion

I've had an odd old daydream this summer, one that recurs now and again.

It happened before the recent Fourth of July fireworks display, but it's been mostly popping into my head at the beginning of swim meets. The meets begin with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. I have rather mixed feelings about the Star Spangled Banner. On the one hand, I strongly associate it with America, for some reason. It does, for reasons of repetition at events of significance, stir in me a certain patriotic feeling.

Then again, I'm not one to allow sentiment to get in the way of critical thinking, or of deeper sentiment. That thinking and my gut tells me, much to my dismay, that our National Anthem is a pretty undeniably craptacular song musically and lyrically. It's a pain in the voicebox to sing. It requires too much vocal range for most mortals, and while it can soar in the right hands, it can also collapse. While I can do it, I have to work not to drift into a warbling falsetto as I attempt to hit the laaand of the freeee.

That's true for most of us, and it's unfortunate, because the "land of the free/home of the brave" part is pretty much the only moment when it comes close to being a song that describes what's important about America. Otherwise, it's mostly a song about a flag with stripes and stars, and about kicking the behinds of those who oppose us. That's true of the first verse, which is all most of us know. Up until the very last line, it could just as easily be about the broad stripes and bright stars of the national flag of Uzbekistan.

It doesn't get any better when you move on to the other verses. In fact, it gets considerably worse. From the second verse, which contains such memorable lines as "where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes" to the entire third verse, which goes:

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!

It's blood and death and booyah flag waving, wrapped in archaic 19th century poetry. And again, up until that last line, this could be describing some particularly impressive Uzbek battle victory. That's fitting, because the song was originally not even about the flag or the principles of our constitutional republic, but a remembrance of a victory at Fort McHenry. It was, in fact, originally titled "The Defense of Fort McHenry."

So my fantasy, my daydream, my little Walter Mitty yearning, is that at some point, at some event, the person called up to sing the National Anthem will put their hand over their heart, look to the flag, and open their mouth.

What comes out, though, would not be "Oh say can you see, through the dawn's early light..." Instead, all those gathered with hands over their hearts would hear:

"O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain..."

I'm not sure how people would respond. Grumbling? Confusion? Likely. But I'm not sure there'd be booing, because we all love that song.

Quite frankly, that's because it's a more American song.