Column: Oh, Say Can You See a New Anthem?

It's time to reconsider the song that represents America
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The modern Olympics started in 1896, but it took 28 more years before the winners would hear their national anthem during the medal ceremony.

The Vancouver Games will conduct 86 medal ceremonies, during which any of the 82 countries present could be serenaded with their national anthem. But not all are created equal – including ours.

You probably knew the melody for our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” came from a popular British drinking song, and that Francis Scott Key added the words during the War of 1812. But you might not have known the song didn’t become our national anthem until more than a century later, in 1931. And we didn’t start playing the song before ball games until World War II.

“The Star Spangled Banner” may be two centuries old, but its status as our national anthem is relatively new – and, I think, not beyond reconsideration.

True, the song can be strong and moving. But who can forget Carl Lewis’s version, which sounded like a feral cat in serious pain, or actress Roseanne Barr’s rendition – which put the “f” back in “professionalism”?

In their defense, “The Star Spangled Banner” is notoriously difficult to sing – or even remember. Raise your hand if you really know what a “rampart” is? That’s what I thought. Thank you.

That’s just another reason why I think we should consider adopting a different national anthem, like “America, the Beautiful.” In 1895, a Wellesley College professor, fed up with the greed of the Robber Barons – sound familiar? – took a train to Colorado, and was reminded along the way what a great country this truly is. When her poem was coupled with Samuel Ward’s melody, a classic was born.

For my money, Ray Charles’ version is the best. When I hear him sing, “America, America, God done shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good, with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea,” there aren’t too many things I wouldn’t be willing to do for my country.

Just a few years after “America, the Beautiful” came out, Irving Berlin composed “God Bless America” to inspire victory in World War I. Twenty years later, he revised it to respond to the Nazis’ rise to power.

From the opening, “God Bless America, Land that I love,” to the close, “My home sweet home,” Berlin doesn’t give you much to quibble about.

If Ray Charles stamped “America, the Beautiful,” as his own, surely “God Bless America” belongs to Kate Smith. But in the aftermath of Vietnam, the patriotic standard’s popularity was slipping – until the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team started playing it before crucial contests. They’ve won some 80% of those games – and all three when Kate Smith arrived to sing it in person.

Her first appearance, on May 19, 1974, preceded the Flyers’ 1-0 victory over Boston, for the Flyers’ first Stanley Cup. Many credited Smith for lifting the crowd and the team to new heights. Even the famously tough Philly fans could not boo Kate Smith.

When the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team pulled off the greatest upset in sports history, the players spontaneously broke into a chorus – not of “The Star Spangled Banner,” but “God Bless America.”

They couldn’t sing it quite like Kate Smith, but they understood what they were singing, they understood why, and they meant every word. I think they were on to something.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Tom Bourque
    February 19, 2010 at 9:41 am | permalink

    John. I agree although this will never happen. When I lived in Miami the Miami Heat used “America the Beautiful” in place of the National Anthem at the start of games. The announcer would say “And now to honor America, please rise for the singing of America the Beautiful”. The singer would sing the first verse and then repeat the refrain. I always thought it worked better than the National Anthem and still let the singer bring it home.

  2. By Steve Radant
    February 19, 2010 at 9:51 am | permalink

    Not the worst idea even, but it is on the short list. I don’t know many rational Americans who would say that more sectarianism is what would cure our country’s ills. And yet that is exactly what John U. Bacon is proposing here.

    The melody on which our National Anthem is based is called the Anacreontic Song. It is indeed a drinking song from 18th-century London. Rumor has it Key chose this melody intentionally, intending to make a not-to-subtle dig at the British, as the lost the battle for Fort McHenry. The original lyrics are suggestive, if not downright dirty. (Google “Anacreontic Song Lyrics” to see the original. Long may the members of our social/drinking club “entwine the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine”? Entendre, meet double.)

    The Star Spangled Banner is bellicose, bordering on violent. But at the same time, it represents a moment in history when our national identity changed. Before 1812, we were a nation of recently freed colonies. After the War of 1812, we were a fully, permanently, independent democracy. And the fact is, it took an invasion attempt to make that change.

    National surveys tell us that 75% of Americans are Christian. Many of this majority would certainly welcome more overt references to their god in daily life. One Nation Under God, God Bless America, May God Have Mercy On Your Soul… these phrases are more divisive than is widely realized. For the 5-10% of Americans who practice non-Christian beliefs, “God Bless America” is a reminder that their beliefs are not entirely welcome here. For the 10-15% of Americans who are non-religious, it’s a suggestion that they’re not fully American if they don’t embrace religious practice.

    If this music were singing the praises of white Americans, or male Americans, this discussion would never even begin. What rational reason is there for treating another (albeit substantial) American minority differently?

    Major League Baseball is a (mostly) private enterprise, and they are free to change their pre-game ceremonies in whatever way they choose. But as the saying goes, just because they can, doesn’t mean they should.

  3. By David K
    February 19, 2010 at 10:05 am | permalink

    Watching the Vancouver Olympic medal ceremonies, I have yet to see one US Gold Medalist sing the anthem or at least attempt to mouth the words. But the Canadians seem to know the words to their anthem.

    In high school, where we had a daily morning meeting of the entire student body and faculty before the academic day started, we sang a stanza or two of My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.

    In junior high, I had to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for a President’s day assembly.

    Even memorizing that is easier than the Star Spangled Banner, which I admit to stumble upon.

  4. By Marvin Face
    February 19, 2010 at 10:18 am | permalink

    David: Seth Wescott, gold medalist in the Snowboard Cross, sang every word of The Star Spangled Banner from beginning to end when the anthem was played during his medal ceremony.

  5. By dannyv
    February 19, 2010 at 10:36 am | permalink

    How about an anthem for all of us that leaves God or any other deity out of it. I lose respect for any anthem that seeks to compromise my beliefs about the anthem being faith-neutral. My Country, Tis of Thee and The Star-Spangled Banner would work. America the Beautiful and God Bless America would not.

  6. February 19, 2010 at 11:47 am | permalink

    I still get goosebumps when America the Beautiful is sung. It speaks of a different time in this country, one that had some flaws, but look at us now. Thanks for reviving this discussion.

  7. By Marvin Face
    February 19, 2010 at 11:57 am | permalink

    Steve Radant: Don’t forget “In God We Trust” which is on every piece of currency! (DannyV…you can use it, too)

  8. By lorie
    February 19, 2010 at 1:27 pm | permalink

    I love America the Beautiful and God Bless America but really, the anthem isn’t going to change because, well, its not about what the sports folks think.

  9. By Steve Radant
    February 19, 2010 at 2:18 pm | permalink

    @Marvin: yes, it’s a motto that does a fine job of saving us from Confederates and Communists. If baseball games start being overrun by Reds and Rebs, we’ll talk. :)

  10. By Andrew
    February 19, 2010 at 4:17 pm | permalink

    I like “This Land is your Land” by Woody Guthrie. It is all embracing, non-religious and egalitarian. It will never be accepted by the tea party status quo that has become the American norm (as Guthrie was an unapologetic socialist) but one can still dream.

  11. By dannyv
    February 19, 2010 at 4:24 pm | permalink

    It’s become the practice at NY Yankee home games for God Bless America to be played during the 7th inning stretch. People are asked to stand for it’s performance or playing. There was an incident where a fan was leaving his seat during it’s performance to go to the restroom was stopped by security and escorted out of the stadium. [Link]

  12. By susan wineberg
    February 19, 2010 at 4:47 pm | permalink

    I’d like to see the Stars and Stripes forever as our national anthem. It is a rousing march and very singable. My Country Tis of thee is really God save the Queen with different words.

  13. By Rod Johnson
    February 19, 2010 at 6:24 pm | permalink

    Woody wrote “This Land is Your Land” when he hitchhiked from OK to NY, and “God Bless America” happened to be a major hit and was on every radio station. (I had a similar experience with “Bette Davis Eyes.”) By the time he got to NY he was so sick of it he wrote a song attacking it. Check out the lyrics to the later stanzas. They’re all about “does God really Bless America?”

    And Stars and Stripes singable? Maybe the trio (the “be kind to your web-footed friends” part), but the rest of it, not hardly.

  14. By Jim M.
    February 20, 2010 at 3:05 pm | permalink

    I’m often angered by John Bacon’s columns and their undercurrent of taunting of progressive and secular values, here exemplified by the statement that Irving Berlin doesn’t give you much to quibble about. I’m sorry that he’s published here.

  15. By Cosmonican
    February 20, 2010 at 4:07 pm | permalink

    It’s called “Free Speech” Jim, get over it.

  16. By ChrisW
    February 20, 2010 at 9:59 pm | permalink

    I suggest “Who Let The Dogs Out”. It’s much more catchy than any of the songs listed above. Or maybe we should just Rickroll it for now on.

    Seriously, who is going to sing America the Beautiful with verses like:

    O beautiful for halcyon skies,
    For amber waves of grain,
    For purple mountain majesties
    Above the enameled plain!
    America! America!
    God shed his grace on thee
    Till souls wax fair as earth and air
    And music-hearted sea!

    “God Bless the USA” is a better song, although forcing God into the national anthem is kind of pathetic in my opinion. He’s already there in the 4th verse of The Star Spangled Banner, though.

  17. February 20, 2010 at 11:30 pm | permalink

    I’ve enjoyed reading the responses that follow these pieces, which have been almost uniformly well written and intelligent, whether they agree with my column or not. I usually keep my nose out of the comments section — after all, I’ve already had my turn – but on a few occasions I haven’t been able to resist responding, especially when it might help clarify the debate.

    In this case, I’d first like to concede the point several have made about the references to God in both songs I cited. It’s as plain as day, as is our principle of separating church and state. I believe in that principle deeply, but I’m far more concerned with places of worship hosting political rallies, for example, than the relatively innocuous traditions of stamping “In God We Trust” on our currency, or having Barack Obama place his hand on the Lincoln bible while taking the oath of office.

    I feel the thrust of Berlin’s “God Bless America” is less religious than patriotic. Raised in a Russian Jewish family whose house was burned down by the Cossacks, he often heard his mom say, after they settled in a basement apartment in New York, “God bless America.”

    Thus, I believe Irving’s use of God is not specific to any religion. Though that still doesn’t do much for atheists, I realize, the religious references in Irving’s song are still a lot less overt than those of the rarely sung fourth verse of our national anthem, which all but beats the listener over the head with them. So, none of these choices is perfect. I just prefer the other two songs.

    As for Jim M.’s “anger” over my columns’ “undercurrent of taunting of progressive and secular values,” as a secular progressive, whose subjects of late have addressed Olympic TV coverage, Michigan basketball, and the virtues of pond hockey, I’m a bit at a loss. But as Cosmonican said, that’s called “free speech.”

    In the meantime, I’m cool with “Who Let the Dogs Out.”

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for writing.

    -John Bacon

  18. By Rod Johnson
    February 21, 2010 at 3:44 pm | permalink

    I don’t know what Jim’s on about, but it is true that “God Bless America” has been viewed as somewhat grating to progressives (such as Woody Guthrie, as I mentioned above). And nobody who has lived through its identification with Kate Smith has emerged unscathed. :)

  19. By huh
    February 24, 2010 at 11:13 am | permalink

    i think this is an attempt by bacon to get some national attention. queue the fake outrage on in 3… 2… 1…