America has a rich musical heritage.
Consider the adaptations of Protestant hymns -- the Negro spirituals -- that gave birth to blues, jazz, and gospel. Consider "pop" music, beginning with Tin Pan Alley and ragtime luminaries like Scott Joplin. Consider jazz, born in New Orleans, which led to such greats as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Consider country music, a fusion of African-American blues and Appalachian folk music, raised to prominence by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Con-sider "soul," a combination of R&B and gospel, which produced Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Consider Rock & Roll, evangelized by Elvis Presley before the "British Invasion."
And look at the European classical music tradition in America. Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, inspired American composers to create a distinctively American style. George Gershwin attracted enormous inter-national attention with his unique, jazz-related style. And Aaron Copland brought immortality to American folk tunes.
So why does a nation with such a rich musical heritage tolerate the Star-Spangled Banner as its national anthem? The Star-Spangled Banner is musically and lyrically bankrupt. (Liberals and conservatives should agree on this. Even the late William F. Buckley Jr., father of American conservatism, hated the anthem).
Let's examine the first stanza. (There are four! Who knew?)
Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Here are just some of the problems:
- Syntax. The anthem is studded with prepositional phrases that disrupt sentence flow. One wonders if they were inserted to fill musical space. Predicates often precede subjects. (The only person I know who speaks this way is Yoda). And there are three -- count them, three -- questions in the first stanza. An anthem should be declarative, not inquisitive.
- Pitch. The first four lines are sung with huge fluctuations in pitch, which is fine if you're a coloratura soprano, but dangerous if you're drinking beer at a football game.
- Accents. The lyrics and music are discordant. Consider "the bombs" in the fifth line. When spoken, the emphasis naturally falls on "bombs," but musically, the accent falls on "the." Articles should not be accented.
Clearly, America needs a new anthem. Here are three options.
- Choose a familiar, traditional song. The best would be America the Beautiful, which stands leagues above the Star-Spangled Banner. (Frankly, I prefer Shenandoah, but regional songs don't make good anthems).
- Commission a new work. Why not ask John Williams to compose a new song? He composed the music to Star Wars. You want "bombs bursting in air?" Get John Williams. He's blown up whole galaxies.
- Capitulate. Admit that our musical culture has hit rock bottom and go with gangsta rap (e.g. 2Pac's I Don't Give a Fuck)
Of course, Americans won't rid themselves of the Star-Spangled Banner, so there's only one real option: Keep the anthem and orchestrate the hell out of it. Even the worst song can be orchestrated into something palatable, even beautiful.
And that's exactly what happened in Atlanta, 1991, when Whitney Houston sang the National Anthem during the Super Bowl. Houston's stunning voice, combined with a magnificent orchestration, transformed an abysmal anthem into a musical masterpiece.
May this extraordinary rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner be the beginning of a peaceful, joyous, and patriotic holiday.