Steve Blevins

Steve Blevins
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA
November 05
Steve Blevins teaches medicine at the University of Oklahoma. He enjoys reading, music, and travel. He is interested in American and European history, French literature and culture, and music for piano and chamber ensemble.


Steve Blevins's Links

No links in this category.
Editor’s Pick
JULY 2, 2009 8:30AM

America Needs a New Anthem

Rate: 55 Flag


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.  

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Steve here's a couple of ideas:

America the Beautiful, easy to sing lyrics, mentions God so Christians won't get in an uproar.

I personal like Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." While there are no lyrics, it's short, so standing up at sporting events won't take as long. I like Copland's reason for writing it. It would be a good fit.

"We are Family" by Sister Sledge. Great to dance to. Your thoughts, kind sir?
I agree with you. It should be "America the Beautiful" or "My country 'Tis of Thee". Or Queen's "We Will Rock You". Oh wait, they're British. Never mind.
Personally, I've always thought Ray Charles' version of "America the Beautiful" is about the most glorious & moving pieces of music ever recorded.

If that doesn't work, how do you feel about "America - Fuck Yeah!" from "Team America: World Police"
America the Beautiful

Why waste money hiring John Williams? Just have a grad student listen to Dvořák then transcribe from memory.

::Insert Jaws theme here::

(Thumbified for musical innovation. I suggest Living in America by James Brown, as featured in Rocky IV.)
I nominate Cher's "Gypsies, Chimpanzees" set to Pachelbel's Canon in D. It just seems more dignified.
Well, that italics code didn't go so well, now did it?
I need to concur with OEsheepdog, "We are Family" by Sister Sledge is a fine recommendation - I also really like "Linus and Lucy" the mellow theme from Peanuts. While it doesn't have lyrics, I can't think of anything more American than Charlie Brown and Jazz music.
I'm fond of Star Spangled Banner, but only because I'm fond of anything I learned to sing in harmony. (Battle Hymn of the Republic is in a similair catergory.)

If we're commissioning something, I would humbly suggest Allen Ginsberg's America be set to music...

("It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel. ")
It doesn't matter to me, I can only lip sink. However, I always had a liking for "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" and while in was "America" as sung by Ray Charles.
How about posting Ray Charles and his recorded youtube version of "America"?

Oh beautiful, for heroes proved,
In liberating strife,
Who more than self, our country loved,
And mercy more than life,
America, America, may God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain devined.
And you know when I was in school,
We used to sing it something like this, listen here:
Oh beautiful, for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties,
Above the fruited plain,
But now wait a minute, I'm talking about
America, sweet America,
You know, God done shed his grace on thee,
He crowned thy good, yes he did, in a brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea.
You know, I wish I had somebody to help me sing this
(America, America, God shed his grace on thee)
America, I love you America, you see,
My God he done shed his grace on thee,
And you oughta love him for it,
Cause he, he, he, he, crowned thy good,
He told me he would, with brotherhood,
(From sea to shining sea).
Oh Lord, oh Lord, I thank you Lord
(Shining sea).
I vote for "I'll Be Watching You" by the Police.
I vote for America the Beautiful. My main problem with star spangled is that it is so warlike. Perhaps it fits us more, but I don't like to think so...
I would humbly suggest this. Brings tears to my eyes every time.
I second Harry's suggestion, for that is the way of my people.
My vote goes to Bruce's Born in the USA
What about just a "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" chant? You don't even have to match pitch.
I don't think anybody is overly concerned since the National Anthem is only sung at sporting events and it's generally a signal to the beer sellers to hurry up since the game is about to start.
I wanted to be Whitney Houston when I was younger ... or maybe I just wanted to be related to Dionne Warwick???

Happy 4th, Dr. Steve :)
It takes my kids almost a whole semester of elementary school music classes to learn how to sing the Star Spangled Banner... reason enough to change it, preventing music teacher torture. They knew America the Beautiful in kindergarten.
Well, I also like "America the Beautiful", but I'm going to be true to my Okie roots and suggest "This Land is Your Land". Sums up what our country should be all about, seems to me.
I'm totally on board with Sheldon's suggestion of "America...FUCK YEAH!" from South Park. I shall begin rehearsing tonight.
"Caledonia" by Louis Jordan.
Steve, if we put it up for a vote this week, we'd probably end up with "Billie Jean." And that may well reflect the state of the nation for some.
Steve - our school is so small that our band is just getting started, so my daughter is one of the go-to girls for singing the National Anthem a capella on the PA system before the football and basketball games. And if we changed anthems, I wouldn't have that terrifying and delicious moment of anticipation of the high note... "and the rocket's red GLARE..." My posture, my eyebrows, my breathing - everything goes up along with her as we wait to see whether her 13-year-old voice can hit that note. Really, it's better than fireworks.
Or we can gloss over the whole thing by getting a new flag. Something cool like Brazil's.
I like Sheldon's idea. Let's not go the way of my high school homecoming theme song: "Another One Bites the Dust."
I like America the Beautiful, it is easier to sing.
I like "America The Beautiful" as our official anthem.

But I'd like to see "Monster/Suicide/America" by Steppenwolf as the unofficial anthem. It's a lesson we need to remember.

Don't go there unless you have ten minutes free. The visuals aren't that great, but the music and the lyrics still speak the truth.

Thumbed. Good post, Steve.
I second dusbowldiva's suggestion of "This Land Is Your Land." What a gorgeous song that is, and would give our country something to strive towards.
The Star spangled banner lyrics come from the poem "Defence of Fort McHenry"
The poem was set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men's social club in London.
an update is so needed. America The Beautiful gets my nod.
One reason Whitney sounds so good is you are hearing two of her! Artists who are going to sing the anthem at the Superbowl record a vocal track in advance, so they can transmit that if there is a technical hitch with the microphone at the last minute. However in this case they accidentally transmitted both the pre-recorded track and Whitney singing live, so she's effectively singing in chorus with herself. Enjoy it, because I doubt if she will ever sound so good again, singly or in duet.

PS "America the Beautiful" all the way. If you can't find someone good to sing it, play Ray Charles from an mp3.
Fan Fare for the Common Man should be the national anthem - then no one will every have to hear me sing at public functions again. Thank you for bringing up the fact that in order to properly sing the Star Spangled Banner you actually have to be able to SING.
For me, a person who's grown quite weary of a world full of extreme nationalism, my country is better than yours, we're more progressive than you and on and on -

Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World - in English

In sign language

With Spanish subtitles

For the people of the world
Oh! And of course for the rest of the inhabitants of our planet
Here's your re-orchestration:

Ray Charles and Willie Nelson have the best versions of America the Beautiful. Both are national treasures. But even a crap song like "My Country 'tis of thee" can be turned into gold by someone like Aretha.
Your excellent dissection of this impossible to sing song, makes me want to lip sync your writing.
>>The Star-Spangled Banner is musically and lyrically bankrupt.

Oh, my dear gawd, so true. It's like eight freakin' octaves. And some of the worst poetry ever. Well, until the world coughed up Rod McKuen. (If you don't remember him, consider yourself lucky.)

"We Are Family" is a good choice, but everybody in the country would have to become gay. And I don't want 400 million people moving to my neighborhood; it's already hard enough to find parking.

Bob Marley's "Get Up Stand Up."

"O Canada." What? It sounds great, it's already a national anthem, so we know it works, and if the Canadians object we can taunt them from just over the border and tell them to come over here and make us stop singing it.

Awesome post, Steve. Rated.
Nice Steve, nice. I agree with the Horse - Ray Charles' version of America the Beautiful is as good as it gets.
"An anthem should be declarative, not inquisitive." You are too funny! I happen to like the Star-Spangle Banner, although America the Beautiful would be a good alternative choice. I have noticed in the past number of years that very few people sing along to the Star-Spangled Banner anymore and I think that is because it is often sung with such artistic interpretation that a regular person cannot even follow along. Whitney's version was pretty follow- alongable.
'If I Can Dream' by Elvis. Have Elvis sing it everytime. Everyone can just lip sinc.

No really - as a traditionalist, leave it as is. I still get goose bumps when the crowd really sings it.
trim, engaging piece, rich with references. As to SSB, Whitney proves it stil stirs, and how.

As a born Kansan, I nominate "Home on the Range", one of the most beautiful melodies and profound sentiments ever wrought by human hands. What was Civil Rights but a firm insistence on no "discouraging words"?
Fantastic version by Whitney. My personal favorite: Lee Greenwald's God Bless the USA. Great post Steve!
Steve, great post and I agree....."Shenandoah" should be the anthem. It is a beautiful song and regionalism be damned!
One vote for America the Beautiful. Where was it I heard that Star Spangled Banner bears amazing resemblance to an Irish drinking song? The melody is a bit ridiculous... But it is sort of like a family member, you adopt it and go along with it despite its flaws I guess...
I'm a defender of The Star-Spangled Banner. Yes, it's complicated and challenging to sing, but America's ideals are complicated and challenging to live up to. Don't give me pap like "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America." America is not great because of its mountains and prairies, or because of its spacious skies and amber waves of grain - those are just accidents of nature. It's great because it's "the land of the free and the home of the brave." And in its own way, The Star-Spangled Banner is inclusive - it has allowed great (and awful) versions by artists in every genre - rock, R&B, pop, country, jazz, classical.
Con Chapman proposed "The Love Train" in his typically hysterical post.
Anyone who hears Ray Charles sing America the Beautiful knows that that IS the National Anthem of which you speak...Visit my post see and hear for your self.......Your post and the music of Ray Charles make the case, convincingly...........Thanks!
There's a good reason that there are three questions in the first stanza of the Star Spangled Banner, it's because our nation anthem IS a question, not a declaration. It's the same question Lincoln asked at Gettysburg a few years and bloody Civil War later:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

Can this nation long endure? Oh, say does that star spangled banner still wave?

Those are the real questions we, as Americans, need to ask ourselves, not every Fourth of July, but everyday. Is America, home of the wacky idea that all of us are born equals, home of the outlandish idea that free speech and freedom of assembly are rights, home of the completely dangerous idea that the citizens of a nation are the guides of their government, still there??

Our Constitution is not great big barrier protecting us. We are balanced on a knife's edge between Freedom and Authoritarianism. (See Bush-Cheney years for numerous examples.)

And so when we sing "Oh, say does that star spangled banner still wave? That's us, the free and the brave singing the answer "YES!"
And it is all about war!
Thanks for the Whitmey Houston version. Its spine tingling. I also recall a rendition by Aretha Franklin to open the '96 Democratic National Convention that slayed them in the aisles.
But Brother Ray Charles did several versions of what should be our anthem, America the Beautiful, that were spine tingling as well. The lyrics to this song truly embody the ideals of the founders.
Here's a link to one of brother Ray's versions.
I grew up with "this land is your land" and that would be my preference for an anthem...although I do really like the idea of "we are family" :D

speaking of Dvořák
wow. I'm not even that big a fan of classical, and
I agree with what you've posited here.....
it's an old English drinking song.

I kind of like that : )
Okay, I don't see that anyone has mentioned that the best part of Whitney's rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" is that it kicked off a Superbowl won by THe New York GIANTS!!!!!!!!

Hello! My brother must be asleep at the wheel that he didn't beat me here to point that out.
Yes, the SSB seems about war now in a Bad way. At the time it was about fighting for freedom from tyranny. Bloody, inelegant and hard to sing, I'm okay with the fact that we'll never have another.

Still, I do love the others more, especially Ray Charles singing Irving Berlin's "America the Beautiful." I too am fully on board with "America...FUCK YEAH!"

And though My Country Tis of Thee has stirring words... hello, the music is from England's National Anthem "God Save the Queen."
Thanks for posting that song. I remember seeing it and getting chills, and I got them again. I am not a fan of Whitney, but this was a wonderful moment for her.

My vote goes to America the Beautiful. I'm another fan of Ray's version. I always tear-up at least a little depending on the circumstances.
I humbly nominate Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" as our new national anthem. "Get yer motors runnin', head out on the highway..." Perfect for a gas-guzzling, SUV-loving nation.
last 3 verses of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is My Land":

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
I like that it's hard to sing. It shouldn't be easy.

I like that it asks a question that we should always be asking ourselves. I like that it reminds us that America was born in uncertainty.

I like the story behind the poem...that it was written by a doctor, detained on a British ship, at night, during the bombardment of Ft. McHenry. It's romantic!
I suggest the new national anthem be the shreiking violins from the shower scene in Psycho. It more accurately describes modern America. And instead of putting our hands over our hearts whenever it's played, we could instead hold out a clenched fist, as though you were holding a knife, and make an up and down stabbing motion, similar to the Atlanta Braves tomahawk chop.
Plus is has the added beneit of no lyrics so we'll never again have to listen to some non-singer butcher the melody.
You're right about your criticism of The Star-Spangled Banner, but I wouldn't want to change our anthem, particularly to something easy and bland like America the Beautiful.

There have been a couple other excellent defenses of SSB, by Joe Nation and Cranky Cuss, so I'll only add that when it is sung well, it is magnificent.
I never liked having a national anthem that was really nothing more than a series of questions. America the Beautiful is a much better choice, focuing as it does on the beauty and bounty of our natural resourses, vs. war. I also like "This Land Is Your Land".
Steve, this is brilliant as usual.

And yet, I couldn't disagree with you more. I'm not American, but I love the Star Spangled Banner. So much energy in the U.S goes towards making everything easy. Yes, the SSB, is an anthem for a country of overachievers, and when it's oversung or undersung it's a nightmare. But when it's sung with the right kind of casual bravado that Whitney pulls off so well, when it's sung by a big crowd, with a big ass's everything you can't help loving about America.

Don't change your anthem. Change your attitude!

And anyways, no one will ever top the Soviet anthem. Now, that is a thing of beauty. Makes me want to just found a whole new country just to commission a Russian composer to do it right.
How about Keb Mo's version of "America the Beautiful" in the final inaguration scene of "The West Wing"?
Okay, now that I have read this entire discussion, I am undecided. I've always preferred America the Beautiful, but the arguments for keeping the SSB are valid. I also like This Land is Your Land. Glad I don't have to make this decision!
Nobody can knock it out of the park like Houston. Here's wishing her the best for her comeback. Happiness and freedom to all.
While I agree with OE that "Fanfare" is exceptional (as are most of Copland's works), I still prefer the current national anthem. Yes, it's difficult to sing--meandering, pitchy, lyrically bereft in places. Yet, it perfectly fits us as a nation: complex and full of flaws. In the end, however, there is still something rather majestic about the end product, despite its shortcomings along the way. I say don't mess with imperfection.
I'm just fine with the national anthem remaining the way it is. And Whitney Houston's rendition of it was incredible. Keep in mind that was in 1991, and we were just finishing up with Gulf War I at that time.

As for the words being too militaristic, have you listened to, oh, La Marseilles?

To arms, citizens. Form your battalions. Let's march, let's march. May a tainted blood drench our furrows.

The Star Spangled Banner is too nationalistic? Have you compared it to, say, Deutschland Uber Alles? The title says it all. Germany over all.

I say leave it be.
I know I am late to the party, but I think we should keep the same anthem until Whitney is dead or can sing it no more.
Seriously, though, what I do like about our current national anthem is that is has DRAMA and it tells a story. It has a large range for normal singers, and often needs to be transposed. The tune is "Anacreontic Song" or also called "Anacreon in Heaven" and the words were written after the fact by Frances Scott Key (which I'm sure you know) but I am guessing that lyricists were hard to come by back then.
"To Anacreon in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron wou'd be;
When this Answer arriv'd from the Jolly old Grecian
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
"No longer be mute,
"I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
"And, besides, I'll instruct you like me, to intwine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."

America the Beautiful would be a wonderful alternative. God Bless America is also nice, but there would probably be an uproar about God in the title, although the message is still agreeable to most.
The dark humor in me agrees with Sheldon, America, Fuck Yeah, should be on the short list :) Whoever had the balls to write that song deserves another 15 minutes of fame.
Hate to break it to you, My Country 'Tis of Thee fans, but it sung to the tune of God Save the Queen, which happens to be the national anthem of the UK.
In his recent book "The House That George Built" (on Gershwin, et al.) Wilfrid Sheed recently suggested "Georgia On My Mind" has become our de facto anthem. That would be okay with me.
This was magnificent. It gave me chills. Right up there with the Ray Charles version of "America the Beautiful."
Can't say I agree with Tony Wang's comments. First, he says the S-SB isn't as militaristic as La Marseilles. Somehow I'm not convinced by an argument that says we're not as bad as the French; I'm going to need something more substantial. Second, T-Dub erroneously translates Deutschland Über Alles to mean Germany conquering (and reigning over) all other nations. The meaning, however, at the time of feudal-state Europe, was to unite all the individual little germanic states under one national identity: the NAME of Germany over all the micro-squabblers (not unlike getting thirteen little colonies to agree to call themselves the USA in the 1700s).

More importantly, here and now, I would like to announce the formation of a brand-new national anthem contest. Judges and prize money to be named later. Whole new song? Same tune with new (non-war) lyrics? Composers, musicians: get going! You've got millions to inspire. And pre-ballgame ceremonies to save.
Sorry I missed this when you wrote it, Steve. Smart and layered, as usual.

Hell, I don't know. I'm torn. These days, I sometimes think the anthem should be Henley's "Dirty Laundry".

Then I get sentimental and like the version I sing loud and proud at the ballgame just fine.
I missed this earlier - enjoyed reading it!

I like America the Beautiful and remember singing it a lot in grade school (back when we pledged Allegiance and sang a song every morning!). But sentiment often seems to fall on "God Bless America" -- which is what people starting singing spontaneously after 9/11. A rousing song, but not sure how I feel about it.
Just read comments. I loved all the defenses of the SSB, about its difficulty -- I'd never thought of that and like that insight. We have things too easy in this country; perhaps our anthem should be difficult.

I have to admit it, it can still give me chills, especially "land of the free and home of the brave". That sums up American ideals in a nutshell. Even if we don't always live up to them, they're worth repeating often to remember to shoot for them.
Well, damn, almost a week later I stumbled across this. Nicely done and I wholly agree. Since there are 85 million more comments than I can possibly read, if by a long shot no one mentioned this, maybe we can all switch to Marvin Gaye's version from the NBA All-Star game.
i can't believe i missed this one. oh shit, it was my birthday. that's why. i can't believe you posted something that wasn't about me on my birthday. but i forgive you because i loathe the star spangled whatever. i'm for either America the Beautiful or something by John Williams. that stupid video won't play for me. terms of use violation. oh, woody guthrie's this land is your land would be my pick. i can't believe you know all of this stuff about grammar and music or were you just winging it? love love love
Two things:
1. I am a compulsive tweeter of truth.
2. What living musician would you nominate for a rewrite? I'm thinking Lil' Wayne on the lyrics & Dr. Dre on the sound? No? Or perhaps Bob Dylan on the lyrics & BB King on the sound? Can the job be outsourced? Bring in Jimmy Page? Clapton? Sir Elton John?

Either way, outstanding post, sir.
I agree, however belatedly. One shouldn't have to be Whitney Houston in order to sing the national anthem.

Although in the context of having invaded Iraq, perhaps"And the Rockets' red glare/the Bombs bursting in air" is sadly appropriate in our national anthem.

I'm with OES: America the Beautiful is a lot easier to sing, and a lot more "about" the entire US.

Well, checkt out this. or on YouTube
I think Green Day should write the new American Anthem or maybe, oh let's see, George Clinton.
great post