Our National Anthems  

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 2 2001 3:00 AM

Our National Anthems  

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Alfred, Erik, Tim:

I like Alfred's Casablanca test. In fact, I think my dog in this fight—"This Land Is Your Land"—aces it. Imagine Americans pelting Nazis with these verses:

The sun came shining
As I was strolling
The wheat fields waving
And the dust clouds rolling
As the fog was lifting
A voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me

Or, even better:

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking
That freedom highway
Nobody living can make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

Pretty damned stirring, if you ask me.

To my ear, "TLIYL" sounds, well, American. Its lyric contains none of the ancient-sounding Britishisms—thee, thou, O—of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" or "America the Beautiful." Nothing is "spangled" (whatever that means). California, the New York island, redwood forests, and Gulf Stream waters are unmistakably American. Who else but an itinerant worker like Woody Guthrie—who had hobo'd his way across the country, hitching rides on freight trains—could write a verse like this:

As I was walking
That ribbon of highway
I saw above me
That endless skyway
I saw below me
That golden valley.
This land was made for you and me.

Call me crazy, but I think a national anthem ought to evoke its country. If we turned "God Bless America" into "God Bless Canada," could you tell the difference? They've got mountains, prairies, and oceans white with foam too.

Granted, the lyrics are "TLIYL" 's strong point. Before Alfred mentioned his Casablanca test, I was thinking about an Olympics test: When an American skater wins the gold in Salt Lake City and stands up on the podium to accept her medal and hear the anthem, would a simple melody like "This Land" 's cut it? Well, no—see Erik's entry for a fine description of why "The Star-Spangled Banner" 's tune and chord progression, considered purely as music, whip up on Guthrie's familiar three-chord setup.

But also consider the beauty of having a national anthem people could actually sing. You wouldn't have to hear the music unadorned, because people would really want to join in. Even the most tonally challenged among us can manage the half-dozen notes of Guthrie's tune. And though the song's usually performed at a bouncy tempo that might seem inappropriate for a national anthem, it can be slowed down to great effect: Witness Bruce Springsteen's powerful rendition on his 1986 live album (to hear a clip, click here and scroll down to Live 1975-1985). On that track, Springsteen introduces "This Land" as "one of the most beautiful songs ever written." He'll get no argument from me.

P.S.: Yes, I know Guthrie was a Communist. But he only a half-hearted Communist, and only for a short while at that. Besides, Francis Scott Key was worse: He was a terrible poet, and that didn't stop us!

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