Alfred Gingold has written eight books, Timothy Noah writes Slate's "Chatterbox" column, Erik Tarloff is a novelist and Slate, and Josh Daniel is Slate's managing editor. This week they weigh the merits of our patriotic greatest hits.
Ich Bin Ein (Irving) Berliner
It's been widely noted (in the New York Times and on NPR, among other venues) that "God Bless America" has, in the weeks since the terror attacks, become the people's patriotic song of choice. There's even talk of it being made the official national anthem. At ballgames and vigils, assemblies of all sorts, it outstrips in popularity the hard-to-sing "Star-Spangled Banner," the tuneful but lugubrious "America the Beautiful," and the folksy, refreshingly deity-free "This Land Is Your Land." "My Country Tis of Thee," with its archaic language (that "Tis" just pops right out) and borrowed melody, is nowhere to be heard. Neither is the bellicose "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which was the song of the hour after JFK's assassination.
Less noted is the fact that, with the "GBA" revival, Irving Berlin achieves a unique hat trick: He is the composer of the nation's most popular Christmas, Easter, and patriotic songs. Why does "GBA," a song that was considered embarrassingly jingoistic in the '60s, when "This Land Is Your Land" began its conquest of grade-school music classes, work so well right now?
First of all, it works because Berlin had a genius for creating songs that are easy to sing, easy to remember, and applicable to just about everybody. The enduring popularity of "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade" is due at least in part to their secularism; they are all warm and cuddly sentiment, no Jesus, crosses, not even a manger in sight. In "GBA," however, the supreme being is front and center in the title. But just as you needn't be Christian to enjoy "WC" or "EP," you don't need to believe in God to appreciate "GBA." Berlin's is the nondenominational, civic god, the one in whom, our currency says, we trust. When someone sneezes, even an atheist says, "God bless you."
Secondly, while "The Star-Spangled Banner" describes a situation not unlike the present one—American courage and sacrifice shining through a terrible time of "bombs bursting in air"—"God Bless America" speaks to how we feel now. Its tone is benign, not militaristic, and unusually personal for a patriotic song ("Land that I love," "My home sweet home," not "we" and "our"). It reflects a desire for help and comfort in a time of uncertainty and fear. The song's first round of popularity came in 1938, when there was also a lot to worry about. Berlin had written it for a show 20 years earlier, but it was deemed wrong for the show—and, presumably, the times—and was cut.
Also, intimate though it is, "GBA" passes what I call the Casablanca challenge. Remember the scene when Conrad Veidt and the Nazis start singing and Paul Henreid and the French drown them out with "The Marsellaise"? Now imagine that the French are Americans and they respond to the Krauts with … "This Land Is Your Land"? Forget it, too rambling and folksy, not to mention those lyrics about people on relief and the no trespassing sign. Dissent in an anthem? I don't think so. "The SSB" would work, but unless you've got pipes like Aretha's, there's a tendency to quaver in the upper reaches of the rockets red glare, which is also when people get a little fuzzy about the words too. "America the Beautiful" has the right feel, but the best-known lyrics are just about scenery and the more obscure are awfully religious, as in: "America, America, God mend thine ev'ry flaw, Confirm the soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!" But "God Bless America" would be just right in Rick's Cafe. It's stirring, humane, uplifting—in short, anthemic.
But should it be our national anthem? I side with Irv on this, who felt there was only one national anthem and that you don't just change it because you prefer another song. Besides, how do you go about changing anthems? Is it a matter of law? Would a referendum or amendment be required? Aren't there more important things for our pols to do?
Besides, I like having an anthem that's hard to sing and almost as hard to learn. Trying to memorize those convoluted lyrics is a rite of American childhood, and hearing assorted celebs attempt its lofty reaches is a curious pleasure that also tells you something about the performer. Roseanne embarrassed herself a few years back when she muffed the words, screeched the high notes, and flipped the bird at a stadium-full of fans; she's a jerk. On the other hand, class-act Marc Anthony sang it beautifully last week at Shea. It's the only anthem we've ever had, so proudly we should hail it.