“Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” Wait! Stop! Hold the needle right there! We interrupt your regularly scheduled patriotic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” this Fourth of July to make the case for a new American national anthem — one that does a better job of being an actual national anthem.
It first occurred to me while watching a flat track dirt race (think NASCAR but messier) that ours really isn’t the right genre. Our anthem is a song about a battle in the War of 1812 and a flag and a new nation’s will to fight on against long odds. Most national anthems are songs about the nation and the people.
Think “Oh Canada” or “Advance Australia Fair,” both sung at my eye-opening race. These both fit as songs broadly about the drivers’ nations and peoples. The “Star Spangled Banner” isn’t even the best song about the War of 1812. If that were the criteria, we should be singing “The Battle of New Orleans.”
Now, it’s true that before we even had a term for hot takes, we had perennial calls to scrap the stirring song as our national number. Several bills have been introduced in Congress to make that happen. They have gone precisely nowhere, because the song remains popular.
Many of the things said against “The Star-Spangled Banner” are wrong, beside the point or as harrowing to hop over as molehills. Yet there is still one really good reason not for deep-sixing it but updating it by writing a new song that does the job better.
Some critics of our national anthem point to the fact that author Francis Scott Key owned slaves, making the bit about the “land of the free” an issue. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves too, but the Declaration of Independence still inspires.
Others naysay that it encourages militarism, with all those rockets and bombs going off. Yet the song is often punctuated not by munitions but fireworks. Besides that, America’s martial history includes much to be proud of and we ought to celebrate it in song.
Still others complain that it’s difficult to sing, having been set to the music of a British bar song with notes that can be hard to hit. However, there are several obvious workarounds.
Many nations encourage singing their national anthems together. That would make hitting some of those high notes easier, with a crowd’s range of registers. We could also change the tune without changing the words, or just put that tune to music. Jimi Hendrix did a famous and inspiring rendition of it on his electric guitar — at Woodstock of all places.
Critics don’t just want to scrap “The Star-Spangled Banner,” they want to replace it with something. Usually that something is “America the Beautiful.” It’s not a bad song, but there’s a reason “The Star-Spangled Banner” is more popular. It at least has some hint of life and history to it. “America the Beautiful” is mostly about geography and abstract, bloodless ideals.
I’m a writer of prose, not song, but it seems to me that “The Star-Spangled Banner” gives aspiring anthemists the perfect opening to do something new. Start with “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” and then tell us what comes next.
Nod to the battle in the original, but show us America in all her glory. Sing of the great migration West, the struggles, the industry, the prosperity and the long continental peace that makes the Fourth of July such a great day to be in these Unites States of America. That would be a truly national anthem that we could all sing together.
Jeremy Lott is author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade,” a history of the vice presidency.