Re-"Imagining" The National Anthem
Why, in our freshly invigorated pursuit of a glorious and sanctifying anthem, a unifying ode by which our tired and borrowed “Star-Spangled” might finally be hushed and replaced, have we committed ourselves, yet again, to repeating our country’s initial, unmusical mistake? Have we not, in the span of our nearly quarter of a thousand years of nationhood, a time during which our musical talent has become the relish and envy of the world, improved upon the melodies of our earliest men? Acknowledging them as our models, and improving upon their hopelessly unoriginal efforts, can we not gather ourselves in the present hour, put aside our nasty differences, and cry out in a more, shall we say, unified and native song?
Perhaps, back then, when first we adopted the “Star-Spangled Banner” and, in time, promoted it to become the unquestioned anthem and preeminent song of this land, it was more forgivable to have been borrowed from the Brits. That’s right: the “Star-Spangled Banner”, along with so many of the other choruses, customs, and rules upon which, with great success, our fledgling country was built, was an inheritance from abroad. It was shipped across the Atlantic and smuggled to our shores. It was quietly hummed from tavern to parlor, hillside to street. It was driven through the ears of a certain Francis Scott Key, a man through whom, at the time of this writing, the sword of “cancellation” has been most mercilessly thrust. Ultimately, his would be the lyrics by which its foreign music would be adorned, the lines with whose memorization every school boy and girl would tax themselves between his day and ours.
Yet, all that being said, it was something of a plagiarized gift. It was the theft of intellectual, cultural property to which, subsequent a revolution and at the outset of renewed hostilities and a second-coming of war, we ought not to have had any real claim. Like it or not, we stole from Britain a piece of its art, much as it had done the Elgin marbles of which the Parthenon had been denuded, but we were rather thieves of song than statuary—the former being easier to carry and conceal. Still to this day, much as Greece complains of that beautiful, marmoreal scene of which it was dispossessed, the Empire of Angles remains the uncompensated author of our “uniquely” American song.
However, unbothered by the stirrings of gratitude, and generally ignorant of our past, we profit from its brilliance still.
After all, at that time, despite our pretensions to international repute and power, ignoring the fact that we thought ourselves grander than we were, America was still a burgeoning and relatively new world—a tyro in the estimation of that ageless island of Britain and that even older realm of Europe. So far as they were concerned, and so far as we might have more soberly judged ourselves, we were but an unripe and youthful nation, a land out of which a unique cultural heritage hadn’t yet completely bloomed. Who could blame us?
The years of our founding and our revolutionary triumph weren’t all that distant, and a fledgling state, such was ours, requires for the cultivation of its genius more time to develop than a mere thirty years (three decades, give or take, would serve to mark the time separating the end of the War of Independence, and that of its sequel, the War of 1812). Yes, we’d succeeded in laying deep and solid roots, anchors in the soil of liberty atop which a canopy of freedom and universal justice would eventually float. This tree, once matured, would welcome in the gentle expanse of its shade every sex, every person, every race, and every creed, but it wasn’t quite ready. The problem was, at this time, it was little more than a shrub. An auspicious plant, doubtless, it can’t be said that our country had taken all the time it needed for its cultivation, pruning, and growth.
It’s no surprise, then, that we remained—in the absence of our own American heritage and idiosyncratic mind—unabashedly Anglophilic. Despite our protestations, our jealousy, and our patriotic zeal, we were still enticed by the flushed cheek of madam Britannia, to whom we couldn’t help but bow. Though England, as a constitutional monarchy, flaunted a system of government to which our own natively mixed and representative version was inimical, its culture inspired in us a far deeper affinity than did its politics. Thus, when putting his lyrics to song, when searching for a canvas atop which the immediacy and the power of Francis Scott Key’s eloquent words might be splashed, he chose to accompany his “Star-Spangled Banner” an old British drinking song entitled “Anacreon in Heaven”.
The very title creates something of a problem. Anacreon, as every Oxford-trained, Cambridge-polished classicist would know, was an ancient pagan lyricist—a type of which, in the proud strumming of that poetic and melodious age, there were more than a few examples. Anacreon, however, was different from his immediate and even somewhat distant contemporaries; he hadn’t the sophistication of an Aeschylus or a Sophocles by whom, albeit in a different genre, he was to be succeeded. While those two great tragedians were sober commentators, incisive critics, and politically-inspired myth-makers of the stage, Anacreon was better known and, frankly, better loved for his production of Grecian drinking songs—a style of music of which, it should come as no surprise, that bibulous country of England would come to be rather fond. If that doughty George had failed in his bid to become that country’s patron saint, Anacreon might’ve succeeded. He was that warmly embraced.
All that being said, Anacreon seems to be the type of figure to whom the Christian heaven, imagined with either its Catholic or closely-related Anglican fixtures, would be completely inaccessible. Despite the fact that he was a pagan and thus, at best, allowed only to enter the hellish realm of Limbo (Dante deemed it so), he was an avowedly unrepentant inebriate. He was, as is evidenced from the stream of his tune, a happy bacchant, a winsome oenophile, to which the lower classes were fervidly attracted. He was a singing proselyte of Dionysus, an effervescent poet of the vine around whom the liveliest of parties would inevitably start. While he might be found smirking and plucking his strings in the background of the Marriage at Canna, he’d surely not be invited to ascend with Jesus to the cloud-laden world above.
I suppose, however, that the apotheosis of Anacreon is somewhat beside the point. The point to which we might return, from which I’ll not again stray, is that “Anacreon in Heaven”, regardless of the justification of his being thus placed, was an English drinking song since the year 1778—written and performed during the very height of our trans-Atlantic struggle. Why it persisted in being this nation’s anthem, despite, in the years to come, an embarrassment of superior alternatives, is anyone’s guess.
While it’s long been my contention that we should abandon “Anacreon in Heaven” (or, if you will, “The Star-Spangled Banner”) for “America the Beautiful”—a song, especially when performed by the inimitable voicing of Ray Charles, with whose soulful euphony and untarnished purity, there’s yet to have been found a real competitor—some are advocating that we adopt, of all possible candidates, “Imagine”, by John Lennon. Without a risk of hurting the feelings of those by whom this idea has been promoted, I can say that it’s absolutely insane. It’s innocent not only of good taste and sound reason, but probity and harmony, as well.
Having described to you the chief problem with which “The Star-Spangled Banner” is and always has been attended (namely, that it’s a vinous, pagan, and irreducibly alien drinking song), I’m absolutely shocked, indeed scandalized, to learn that it’s the desire of some people in this country to make those very same mistakes again. Of course, you needn’t the musical expertise and acuity of thought by which I’m so well-served to point out that “Imagine” is a song written by an Englishman—despite his repeated aspirations for a boundary-less, international community of man. While he might’ve “imagined” there to be no countries, to have no national borders through which, in his wanderings, one might move, this never was, nor shall ever be the case. Statehood and sovereignty aren’t so soon to be replaced by the hazy alternatives of whose form we haven’t even the slightest conception. To dream of such a place is but a utopian folly, the type of which even the most fanciful of Marxists have largely disabused themselves.
Like “Anacreon in Heaven”, that tune in whose habit our dear anthem has for so long clothed itself, “Imagine” is vinous, pagan, and alien. Here in America, we don’t wear its dress well. We look unappealing its suit, our arms and legs too wide and strong for the narrow cut of its seams. Vinous, pagan, and alien—it’s all of those things, and considerably worse. It muses over the prospect of “no religion”, an idea behind which the distant heathen might gather his zeal, but to which the humble American offers but little support. Still a somewhat faithful person, though he sees around him with disquiet the religiosity of his forebears in a state of precipitous decline, the thought of no religion is one against which he and most other Americans instinctively bristle. It is unfamiliar and not yet welcome into the heart of this land.
“Imagine” doesn’t stop there. It goes on to uncouple the exhilarating and divinely perplexing association of heaven and sky, enjoying in the absence of the former, the tasteless fruit of the latter. It banishes from consciousness the threat of hell, the last influence by which many people’s actions are chastened before they die. To some, their moderation is dependent on the perceived reality of this threat, an infernal imposition into which, lest they be incautious, they might actually fall.
Without thought of tomorrow, or for a higher life to come, the exhortation is to live for today. While I agree, as a general principle, with the importance of the “here and now”, and the sentiment by which this emphasis is usually motivated, the language used by Lennon to express it is rather myopic and base. It’s anemic and insipid, and it lifts the soul not an inch. The eye, after all, was built to gaze upon heights unfathomable, to look toward futures unseen. One gets the feeling that Lennon wants us merely to close our eyes, to sink into the stupor of our dreams. He wants us to sway and chunter about the communist utopia at which, with trance-like persistence, we’ll sooner or later arrive.
Americans are too vigorous; Americans are too numinous; Americans are too liberal; Americans are too free. We are the home to the Hudson River School, and, as a manifestation of our spirit, our artistic sensitivity is too vast. As if in the splashes of an Edward Cole painting, we need spacious skies, purple mountain majesties, wilderness, nobleness, and an abundance of fruited plains. We need Sierra Nevadas, Everglades, and Yosemites, the fall of the moon and the rise of the cyclic sun. We do not need “Imagine”, nor “Anacreon in Heaven”. We can thank “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the centuries well-spent. Give us “America the Beautiful”, and let us sing as one.