No matter what one’s political inclinations, January 20th was an extraordinary day for the United States. And not just in the US—people around the world turned on their TVs to watch the inaugural. Our Aussie Wench got up at 3:00 am (!!!) to watch.
Many of you know what a great show it was, including the different kinds of music. (I was ravished by John Williams’ ‘Aire and Simple Gifts.’ When clarinetist Anthony McGill came in with the melody of ‘Simple Gifts…” Swoon!!!
But the music that sparked a behind-the-scenes Wench discussion was Aretha Franklin singing “America,” also known as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.’ I wondered a bit about why this particular patriotic song was chosen, but if that’s what they wanted, no problem.
However, two of our Wenches are not American citizens. To Jo, English and Canadian, and Anne, Australian, it sounded very strange indeed to hear the British national anthem at the American presidential inauguration. Different words, of course, but that music is unmistakably “God Save the Queen/King.”
Did some American intend “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” to be a poke in the eye of the old country? Probably not. A couple of hundred years ago, it was pretty common to latch onto a good tune and set new words to it. Samuel Francis Smith, who wrote the lyrics to "America/My Country 'Tis of Thee" (aka "God Save the Sovereign of Your Choice") got the tune from a German source:
Through much of the 19th century, “America” was a de facto national anthem. In earlier days, around the time of Washington, “Hail Columbia” was the most common patriotic choice. Other songs were also widely song.
The music of “America/God Save the Queen” is very easy to sing, especially when compared to the notoriously difficult “Star Spangled Banner,” which covers an octave and a half range, so that helped the song's popularity.
As some of you probably know, tune of “The Star Spangled Banner” was taken from a drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” (Anacreon was a classical Greek poet who wrote poems in praise of love and wine, which makes perfect sense for drinking songs.) In the 18th and early 19th centuries, people latched onto tunes as merrily as they do information on the internet today.
And the internet is right where I went because I was intrigued by the whole subject of national anthems (and more broadly, patriotic songs in general.) The idea of a national anthem really took hold in the 19th century, along with the development of nation state identities, though some of the anthems are older, of course.
Probably the first national anthem was “God Save the King,” which dates from the mid-18th century. Ideally, an anthem captures a sense of the nation and its essence or aspirations. These days a lot of anthem recognition comes through sporting events. Before television, anthems weren’t needed so much. A lot of anthems weren’t formally adopted until the 20th century. “The Star Spangled Banner” wasn’t adopted until 1931, for example.
Anthems generally come in two types: marchs, or hymns of praise to the monarch or the country. “God Save the King” is definitely hymn-like, as is “Jerusalem,” which is also something of a British anthem, as is “Land of Hope and Glory.”
That last is sometimes considered as an anthem for England, as opposed to GSTK, which is actually the anthem of the United Kingdom as a whole (and often used as a royal anthem through the Commonwealth countries.) Wikipedia says Wales, Scotland, and Ireland have anthems of their own, but not England. See how complicated this gets?
Countries born in revolution often have more martial anthems, and of these, France’s “La Marseillaise” is hard to beat. Stirring!
Both the US and Britain have marches as well as hymns. “Rule, Britannia!” is a grand and stirring song, but not exactly conciliatory. <G> The refrain is “"Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves: Britons never will be slaves." The military pride and naval slant definitely reflect the Empire. (These days, you can get “Rule, Britannia” as a ringtone for your cell phone. <G>)
“The Star Spangled Banner” is also pretty martial, with all those bombs bursting in mid-air. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is both a hymn and a march. “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:.” Right. It was a popular abolitionist song during our Civil War, but it’s not exactly conciliatory, though still popular as a patriotic song. Actually, even hymn-like anthems tend to turn martial in later verses, with much smiting of foes and crushing of enemies beneath righteous feet.
On the other hand, “America the Beautiful” is definitely a hymn, and that’s the patriotic song I heard most after the horror of 9/11. It has always been a contender for national anthem, and it’s a love song, not a battle song. It was written by Katharine Lee Bates, a Wellesley English professor, after she took the train cross country to Colorado Springs. It’s said that the words came to her when she was up on Pike’s Peak, looking out over the ‘amber fields of grain’ of the Great Plains. (The music is by Samuel A. Ward.)
Chosing anthems gets complicated. Australia used GSTK/Q for a long time, but it’s not an Aussie song. “Waltzing Matilda” is widely associated with the country, and personally I think that a song about the drowning of a sheep thief has a cheerful anti-authoritarianism which seems quintessentially Aussie to me. <g> (In a similar vein, our webmistress, Sherrie Holmes, says that the unofficial state song of Washington is “Louie, Louie.” <G>)
Being a modern nation, Australia decided its national anthem by popular vote in 1984. There were four contenders, and the winner was “Advance, Australia Fair,” a nice enough song in the hymn mode. Our Australian Wench, Anne Gracie, preferred the song derived from the poem “My Country,” by Dorothea Mackellar, which is well known to all Australians:
“I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror- the wide brown land for me!
Though earth holds many splendours, wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country my homing thoughts will fly."
Music has been called the language of the soul, and at its best, it speaks right to our emotions. Patriotic songs, which touch on our deepest feelings about our homelands, can bring tears.
All that being said, why was “America” sung at the inauguration rather than a different patriotic song?” I don’t know the official reason, but my guess is because it’s a paean to liberty and freedom, an affirmation of our deepest American ideals. As such, it makes perfect sense for the inauguration.
So do you have any thoughts on national anthems in general, or the choice of “America” in particular? What songs stir your blood? Which ones make you want to stand up and cheer?
And which ones bring tears to your eyes?