Our National Anthems  

Our National Anthems  

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

Our National Anthems  


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!

Alfred Gingold has written eight books, Timothy Noah writes Slate's "Chatterbox" column, Erik Tarloff is a novelist and SlatexBook Clubber

Who Are These People, and What Are They Talking About?

Welcome to a new twist in an ongoing Slate experiment. For a few years now, we've been doing our book reviews as epistolary correspondences between two critics—usually big shots in whatever field the book is about. Now Slate is switching to a cast of eight reviewers, chosen not for their expertise in any one area but because they're curious, sensible, and witty general readers whose criteria for evaluating a book are probably a lot like yours. Each week, you'll hear two of the folks below discussing a new book or group of books. The other Clubbers may interrupt them with comments and questions. And we hope you will too, by submitting postings to "The Fray," Slate's reader feedback forum.

Participants include:

Christopher Caldwell, a senior writer at the Weekly Standard and a columnist for the New York Press.

Debra Dickerson, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of An American Story.

James Fallows, the national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the author of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel.

Jodi Kantor, the New York editor of Slate.  

Sarah Lyall, a correspondent in the London bureau of the New York Times.

Nell Minow, the editor of the Corporate Library, which covers corporate governance and performance, and writer of Movie Mom, reviews of films and videos. 

Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation and author of the forthcoming Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.

A.O. Scott, a film critic for the New York Times.

Judith Shulevitz, the "Close Reader" columnist for the New York Times Book Review.

Erik Tarloff, the author of Face-Time and The Man Who Wrote the Book. (Click here to buy Face-Time and here to buy The Man Who Wrote the Book.)

Ted Widmer, the author of Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City and the co-author of Campaigns: A Century of Presidential Races, a former White House speechwriter, and director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.

Marjorie Williams, the author of a weekly opinion column for the Washington Post and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

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, and Josh Daniel is Slate's managing editor. This week they weigh the merits of our patriotic greatest hits.