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Letter From The Editor

July 2024
3min read

Everyone is getting ready in one way or another for the Bicentennial. Some of us will be content if we can simply watch the parades go by whilst munching hot dogs that cost under a dollar, but such simple pleasures will not satisfy the doers of good. The reformers sniff their opportunity, and one of them, according to a news clipping before us, detects it in patriotic music.

The reformer in question is Senator Clarence Blount, a Maryland state legislator, and his target is his state’s Civil War-vintage song, which begins:

Thou wilt not cower in the dust, Maryland! my Maryland! Thy gleaming sword shall never rust, Maryland! my Maryland! Remember Carrou’s sacred trust, Remember Howard’s war-like thrust, And all thy slumb’rers with the just, Maryland! my Maryland!

The tune is stolen from the German “O Tannenbaum,” a peaceful apostrophe to green fir trees, but never mind that. After all, Yale’s “Bright College Years” is sung to the crashing air of “The Watch on the Rhine” and “America” to the music of “God Save the King,” or, alternately, Heil Dir im Siegerkranz . In the anthem business not much attention is paid to the Eighth Commandment.)

The song, Senator Blount said, contains phrases “which are objectionable to many citizens for their warlike and divisive connotations,” and he pointed to another verse, which urges Marylanders to “avenge the patriotic gore / That flecked the streets of Baltimore.”

Senator Blount has filed a resolution proposing a contest for a more peaceful song in time for the Bicentennial, but we can’t offer him much encouragement, because peace is hardly the keynote sounded in most of the world’s national anthems. The God of Battles is frequently summoned up by Euterpe, but not the Goddess of Concord. Our own “Star-Spangled Banner” celebrates an American victory, or at least a British failure, at Baltimore, whose streets seem to run steadily with blood in the world of patriotic music. As for the British, one should recall not the familiar first but the second verse of “God Save the Queen”:

Oh Lord, our God arise, Scatter her enemies, And make them fall: Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks, On Thee our hopes we fix: God save us all.

If the language is quaint, this still strikes us as a straight appeal for Watergates to descend on the queen’s enemies (or should we pronounce it enemize?), but it is pretty taine stuff compared to Denmark’s anthem, which describes the feats of an early sovereign:

King Christian stood by the lofty mast In mist and smoke; His sword was hammering so fast, Through Gothic helm and brain it passed…

This is not our impression of Denmark today, but it is perhaps because they are no longer troubled with Goths. Nearly two centuries after the revolution France’s “La Marseillaise” still bristles with Rouget de Lisle’s anger at la tyrannie and its ruffian soldiery; indeed, about two thirds of national songs mention tyranny unfavorably; as the polls put it, none favor it.

Some African nations also sing patriotic songs in French, among them Gabon, whose new national song is called, in hopeful fashion, “La Concorde,” and is full of fraternité and félicité for the first verse. But then— ah, the devil in us all!—we come to the second, which calls on the happy future to

… Chasse les sorciers, ces perfides trompeurs Qui semaient le poison et répandaient la peur.

Perhaps Gabon has a special problem, or it may just be the fact that nearly every country’s song, for some perverse reason, really comes to life when it is against something—the Welsh, in Harlech, arranging to make Saxon foemen “bite the ground,” the Ethiopians planning “the downfall” of theirs, even the Guatemalans urging one another to defend against “tyrants” that “sacred soil” so popular with exiled Americans.

By now it must be obvious that we have a book on the subject; it is National Anthems of the World (1963), edited in England by Martin Shaw and Henry Coleman. We have searched rather casually through this melodic armory and found very little adherence to the supposedly peaceful ideals of, say, the United Nations, notable exceptions being, of all things, Vietnam’s (of 1943), which preaches unity, and West Germany’s, which is also for it (same old tune, though: “Deutschland Über Alles”).

Otherwise we must advise Senator Blount that the world situation, anthemwise, remains just as warlike and divisive as it is in Maryland. So it goes right through the book from A, for Albania, with a brisk attack on “enemies of the people,” to z for—ah, yes—for Zanzibar. Here it is, called “Zanzibar,” reasonably enough. Arranged for the late sultan in 1911 by Professor D. F. Tovey, it has one outstanding advantage over all the other patriotic music we have been discussing. It has no words at all! Nothing warlike. Nothing to stir the blood against one’s neighbor. Nothing divisive. Not a syllable against tyrants. Hallelujah! Unfortunately, we must remind Senator Blount and the reform element, the sultan was overthrown and Zanzibar gobbled up into a new country called Tanzania, despite that wordless, peaceful anthem. Who hums it now?

Oliver Jensen

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