October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was written about a single episode from a war about which Americans now know little and that most historians agree should not have been fought. While the song goes into great detail chronicling the failure of the British assault and the success of those fighting for the United States, it really does not touch upon the wonder and beauty of the country. In that sense, our national anthem is very one-dimensional.
The old English drinking tune “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which supplies the melody for “The Star-Spangled Banner” is hardly inspiring in itself. By the time it was set to Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” it had been coupled to at least 84 other sets of lyrics in the U.S. alone, including another written by Key. Hence, with its one-note story and antiquated tune, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a strange and narrow choice for the musical symbol of the United States.
Underrated “America the Beautiful” has to be the most underrated patriotic song. Written by a Wellesley College instructor, Katherine Lee Bates, while visiting Pikes Peak, the lyrics detail the wonder of the American landscape as well as the history of the trials and courage it took to build our nation. Bates’s words also encompass the individuals who developed the principles on which the laws of America were based, the changes wrought by the advance of civilization, and the potential of this nation that remains for each new generation to claim as its own birthright. “America the Beautiful” is a timeless song that compresses the whole American story.
Another much underrated song is “God Bless America.” Written by the nation’s foremost tune-smith, a man who came here with his family seeking religious freedom, this Irving Berlin number got shelved in 1918 because he felt the song’s serious tone clashed with the comedic revue he was performing. It remained forgotten for almost 20 years, until a famous entertainer sang a new version by Berlin on the radio as a tribute to the veterans of World War I. With Kate Smith having been rejected time and time again by show business because of her size, with Berlin rejected in his native country because of his Jewish faith, and with the song originally rejected by its own writer, not only does “God Bless America” paint a vivid picture of the wonder and beauty of the country, but the story behind the song presents the true American dream—that anyone with enough faith and effort can find a place here.