Et Tu, Fergie?
Much as I’d like not to, I must hesitate before jumping to blame Fergie, and Fergie alone, for having killed the National Anthem. She’s merely complicit in the crime—the latest songstress-turned-murderess standing on stage, in flagrante delicto with a microphone in one hand and a dagger in the other.
The “Duchess”, the curious name applied to and by herself, bears some responsibility for etching in ink the Anthem’s death warrant Sunday night at the NBA All-Star Game, but not all of it. Her contribution to its halting end is indeed the consequence of many painful decades in the making. That said, unfortunately, it’s she who stands before us as having struck the final blow. She’s removed herself from the pack of the other nameless assassins who’ve injured our Anthem. Alas, hers are the hands that drip with the song’s blood, as our ears drip just the same.
Her rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, our once vaunted and respected national tune, was equal parts comical and insufferable. The chord she struck was a coup de grace. It was the timely death-blow of a proud, but, for too long protracted hymn in desperate need of repair. It was the valediction, the dying breath of an overture long past its due.
Whether she intended to or not, Fergie buried the Anthem in the ground, scattered its bones, and made it all but unsalvageable for a generation of lyricists and archaeologists to come. And while they might, with luck, exhume it, I don’t think they’d be wise to revive it. She finished the job, set in motion years before her emergence as a Black-Eyed Pea, a solo diva, or, now, an internet meme, with a confused cacophony that elicited laughing and cringing from the audience. She jazzed the Anthem up by slowing it down, attaching to its plodding tempo her receding range. Her low notes were painful flats, the high ones, strident sharps, and throughout it she carved at whatever skeleton of a song remained.
She tried, like a bored bohemian, to make our anemic Anthem something refreshingly, intrepidly, and artistically new; instead, she failed and she sealed the song’s fate. Sad though this may seem, I don’t think it’s a loss we necessarily ought to mourn. It’s not yet the time nor the occasion to chant a eulogy where once an anthem stood. Rather, we should be looking forward eagerly to what might be the worthiest replacement song. After all, where there’s death, there springs forth life and where the coda sleeps, a new overture stirs.
At the end of this Star-Spangled cadence comes a new and superior song. In the tune of America the Beautiful, we welcome into the budding grove of American music a more gallant, inspiring, and harmonious ode to fill our country’s breast. With it we write a new chapter and a better and more original poem of which our American songbook will be composed. In a word, it and not the deflated Star-Spangled Banner should be our country’s National Anthem.
I came to recognize America the Beautiful as a superior song in the third grade. It was during those halcyon days of brown-bags, arithmetic, and a stubborn lisp that I began fully to appreciate its beauty and grandeur. My teacher, whose name I’ll protect from these pages, would begin each and every morning with a different American ode—never repeating from one day to the next the same song twice. She would, with the day’s unsullied and eager chalk board at the ready at her rear, orchestrate each morning’s song from the head of the room. There she’d stand, always with her pressed beige slacks and equally uneventful jacket below our class’ humble, miniature American flag. It was, as most classroom flags are, suspended at a lofty angle above our curious heads. Sometimes in unison, usually out of sync, but always with gusto, the class would then bop along like merry little patriots to her song selection and her choral direction. We would croon to the folksy stylings of Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, or chant with sober sanctimony as if our own manifest destiny depended on it to the words of God Bless America. The anglophiles amongst us would strain with suspicious forgery when My Country Tis of Thee was the ode du jour and, of course, in time, we’d eventually circle back to the Star-Spangled Banner, another—as soon you’ll see—imported English tune. And on those infrequent days when our young vocal cords needed their rest, Hail to the Chief—that wordless presidential paean—would serve dutifully to usher in the day.
But none of those songs raised me to the precipices of the purple mountains; in them, I felt nothing like that height, that altitude, that exaltation. Nor did they lower me, gently and majestically, to taste the fruited plains and be tickled by the amber grains. From one sea to her shining sister—the placid west, to the tempest east—only one song swelled within me a wave of rapture and a feeling that, if indeed God’s grace is to be shed, surely it’s upon thee. Only one song is as aesthetic as it is patriotic, as melodious as it is original. That song is America the Beautiful.
Penned by a professor of English literature in the late 19th century, and later accompanied with music in the early 20th, America the Beautiful has lived an understated life in the Star-Spangled Banner’s shadow. The latter, as I think many Americans are coming now to realize, is an inferior song in two remarkable ways. The first, as I mentioned above, is its unoriginality. The words were uniquely those of Francis Scott Key, but the music was a trans-Atlantic import from the British Isles. Instead of Beatles and Yardbirds, Key was inspired by a different type of British Invasion. It came to him not only in the form of Limeys attacking our seas and soil at Baltimore Harbor and Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, but in the form of some Tory aristocrats who haughtily called themselves the Anacreontic Society.
The society was that of an affected hodgepodge of professional and learned men of the day. Meeting on occasion and honing with amateurish enthusiasm their musical craft would be a group of British doctors, barristers, lawyers, academicians, and politicians. The name, “Anacreontic” was a classical homage to the 6th-Century poet and lyricist, Anacreon, who succeeded—in time but not in ability nor fame—the likes of Homer and Hesiod, the ancient world’s foremost historians and bards. But it wasn’t Anacreon whose spirit and patronage they sought. Rather, they prayed to and played for Dionysius, the lord and god of revelry, debauchery, and drink.
Needing, though, to propitiate both god and patron saint, they composed a song titled, “To Anacreon in Heaven”. Quickly, in the manner of a later day “Piano Man” or “Don’t Stop Believin’”, the Society’s hit became an earworm and a pillar in every tavern across the U.K. From Everton to Manchester, Chelsea to London, men would gather around, raise a pint, swing to the rhythm, and belt out with bibulous zeal the Anacreontic ode—much the way those jaunty football hooligans do in pubs in our own day.
Thence, from its origins abroad, it leapt across the Atlantic Ocean where it found Francis Scott Key’s searching ear. Being that the tune was popular, euphonious, and obviously adaptable to any purpose, he attached its melody to his homespun words. At last, in this marriage of Anglican music and American lyrics, the Star-Spangled Banner was born.
It’s in Key’s lyrics, however, that we stumble upon the second issue with the Star-Spangled Banner. In his penultimate stanza, the third of four, Key—who was, you’ll recall, a lawyer by trade and a poet by avocation—references the “hireling” and the “slave” as having no refuge from the “terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave”. Even for an elegy whose theme is the harsh reality of war and the British assault at Fort McHenry, this single line is jarring. It’s a reminder of the cold, evil fate that awaited most every African slave living in America at the time. The “refuge” about which Key wrote would be unthinkable for at least two generations to come; it would be another half century before first a proclamation and then a Constitutional Amendment would abolish slavery as an institution full-stop.
So, as a country and at this moment, we must ask ourselves this: is the Star-Spangled Banner a celebration of our patriotism or a mere British pastiche? Is it a galvanizing ode or a callous refrain? Is it original, authentic, and inclusive, or borrowed, anemic, and stale? Is it, most importantly of all, the best that we can do? It’s time we pay our respects and usher in a new, uniquely American song. Fergie tolled the death knell. It’s time we give America the Beautiful its chance on the stage.