By Benjamin Phillips
Whenever “The Star-Spangled Banner” is performed in public, I stand, silent, at attention, and gaze straight ahead until the song is over. I do this out of respect for my fellow citizens. However, my behavior during the national anthem is about public manners only, and has nothing to do with patriotism. Here’s why.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is unsingable for most of us. I know this because I’m a degreed musician with many years’ experience accompanying singers, soloists as well as ensembles, mostly in church.
Try this (by yourself, please): Start on any tone, and sing: do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-re-mi-fa-sol. Go straight up the major scale, without stopping, in one breath. That’s a full octave plus one-half of the next higher octave. Can you do that? If you can’t, then our national anthem is out of your reach because the melody requires this wide range.
More seriously, nothing about this anthem’s words is patriotic. Nothing. Patriotism, love of country, stands apart from nationalism, pride in one’s country.
The War of 1812 inspired this poem by Francis Scott Key. He composed the text in memory of the battle at Fort McHenry, Baltimore, in 1814. The tune soars to its melodic high point on the words “rockets” and “bombs” in the first verse. Those are the notes most of us can’t reach. Notice that we only ever hear the first verse in public. The imagery says it all. A tattered flag waving over fortress ramparts certainly does suggest pride in the war’s victory, but it is empty of patriotism. Tradition alone can’t make these words patriotic.
We have other choices besides this ode to the flag.
Until 1931, when Congress passed the resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover, other anthems competed for popularity at public events. “Hail Columbia” was popular for much of the 19th century. “O Beautiful, for Spacious Skies” and “My Country ’Tis of Thee” were heard frequently, and both of these appear in many church hymnals today.
People who can sing at all can sing these tunes. Most important, their words are explicit about love for our country. Patriotism.
I’ve never met a combat veteran who cherishes home for the sake of “bombs bursting in air” or “rockets red glare.” Surely coming home is more about “Sweet land of liberty,” “Purple mountain majesties,” “Amber waves of grain,” “Let Freedom Ring!” and “From sea to shining sea!”
Change the national anthem. Celebrate love for America. Let us raise our voices about loving our country in patriotic verse to music that all of us can sing.
Benjamin Phillips, Ph.D., is the organist at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in North Tonawanda.