Marc Estrin : Our Unsingable National Anthem

Bombs bursting in air…
Oh say can you sing?

By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / March 11, 2010

Oh, say can you see? o sa cn u c? When did we have to stand and sing this at hockey games? Revolutionary War? The War of 1812? Maybe the Civil War? Actually it wasn’t until this week in another Great Depression year, 1931, that President Hoover signed a congressional resolution creating “our national anthem.”

Originally a British drinking song, the octave and a half tune is quite unsingable — at least for the average Joe when sober — to the point that “the rockets’ red glare” or “conquer we must,” or even “freeeeeee” take on a grotesque crowd cacophony so beautifully illustrative of our drone attacks for democracy around the world.

In November of 2001, shortly after 9/11, along with the music to be played (one piece being Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies) the players found on their stands the music to The Star Spangled Banner. The orchestra board had decided that from here on, we would begin each concert, to a standing audience, with this hymn to patriotism. I stood up and objected, to glares from the other players, and did not participate in the short play-through.

At the next rehearsal, the players found on their stands a little manifesto:

For those who find perplexing the opposition to playing the Star-Spangled Banner.

At the present moment, the Star-Spangled Banner is not just the Star-Spangled Banner, but is also a clear, even fierce, political CODE. For those of us in the peace movement, here is what the code signifies:

— My country right or wrong.
— Rally behind the President, regardless of his agenda.
There are corollaries to the code, not as universally espoused:
— You are with America or against it.
— If you don’t support the war, you are a traitor.

As I stand daily at a Burlington peace vigil, I am acutely aware of a dangerously violent strain of jingoism, as some people yell obscenities at us, and advise us loudly to “Kill ’em all!” or “Nuke ’em.” One guy even swerved onto the sidewalk yesterday threatening to swipe the vigilers. Invariably, these cars are flying the largest possible flags on antennas and windows, and the comments often accuse us of not supporting America. [This was back then; mostly we get thumbs up now.]

There are those of us who believe that democracy involves multiple opinions, not unanimity, and that patriotism can require criticizing the government, especially in a thrust involving killing innocent civilians, skewing domestic budgets toward military spending, and tightening down on civil rights in the name of “security.” I personally — and I am not alone — believe that our current course, far from increasing national security, will seriously increase the odds of further attacks against hated Americans.

It would surely be appropriate to acknowledge the tragedies spinning around us, and to dedicate the Grieg elegiac pieces to the victims of terrorism — which I understand to mean ALL victims of ALL terrorism, individual, group and state terrorism, everywhere. But playing the Star-Spangled Banner transforms the sentiment into the CODE, and implies the orchestra’s support for the Bush/Cheney agenda. I think this inappropriate for us to do.


Marc Estrin

By the first rehearsal of next spring’s concert, it seems all this had been forgotten — no Star Spangled Banner was on the stands or at the concert. Did I win? I doubt it. Probably the “good intentions” were just gobbled up by the memory hole.

But what wasn’t gobbled was the jingoist military muscularity — now enshrined ever more fiercely in our foreign and domestic policies — making any “national anthem” (much less the unsingable SSB) stick in the craw of peace-loving, humane singers except of course those who have substituted the far simpler-to-sing obsessive compulsive chant, USA! USA! USA! USA!

Franklin warned us as he left the Constitutional Convention in 1787. A reporter asked: “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” The good doctor famously responded: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

When the bankers and political crooks seized on the opportunities offered them by the nation’s founding documents, the founders, whatever their differences, lamented:

Hamilton spoke of “the culpable desire of gaining or securing popularity at an immediate expense of public utility.”

John Adams: ”Oh my country, how I mourn over thy contempt of Wisdom and Virtue and overweening admiration of fools and knaves!”

Jefferson feared the onslaught of “pseudo-citizens infected with the mania of rambling and gambling” among those obsessed with commerce and moneymaking.

Madison had hoped that ordinary people would have the “virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom” as their representatives; if not, he warned, no government could “render us secure.”

Oh, say, could they see? You betcha. We, as a nation, are just beginning to understand what they saw.

[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

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5 Responses to Marc Estrin : Our Unsingable National Anthem

  1. huisache says:

    The battle in question took place right after the Brits had seized and burned Washington DC to the ground, including the White House.

    If they won the battle in Baltimore harbor they could land an army and cut the country in half and dictate terms which would have severely impeded the independance of the US.

    There was real doubt as to whether the US could hold off the british fleet and save Baltimore. The battle lasted all night and the author of the song was on the deck of a british ship as a captive.

    The captives did not know what was happening in the battle or who won.

    At the dawn’s early light they saw the US flag was flying rather than the flag of the empire of Britain.

    They were very happy.

    The song celebrates self determination for a people who the brits saw as subjects.

    The author of this piece is reading all kinds of stuff into the song that is not there. He needs to read some history. If he doesn’t like the government of the US, I am with him, I don’t care for it either.

    But a win over the Brits in 1814 was all kinds of good for just about everybody and the country that withstood the attack has been a part of a lot of liberation since then for others. Such as keeping Europeans out of the Americas, killing Hitler, creating a democracy rather than a race crazed militarism in Japan, etc.

    And the song is not unsingable except for people who can’t sing much of anything to start with. For them, there is always Mary had a little lamb.

  2. Jay Raskin says:

    Thanks for pointing this out. Having heard the National Anthem sung approximately 30,000 times, I have never understood it until now. It is a celebration of a military victory in a sea battle against Great Britain. Now it seems even more absurd that before every baseball game, I should listen to a song celebrating a forgotten military battle in a forgotten war that happened nearly 200 years ago.
    We really need to get a new national anthem. I nominate Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” as the new national anthem. That song has real meaning for people living today.

  3. Seems to me that Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” is already the national anthem for those who believe in the land and the people as opposed to national boundaries and macho military posturing.

  4. Richard says:

    Put me down for Lennon’s IMAGINE.

  5. Fed Up says:

    huisache, good points, and I believe accurate.

    It seems that the left does not recognize the historic progressive nature of the US revolution and the US Civil War! I don’t know why, other than the very contradictory nature of the US “revolution” (slavery and the extermination of the Native Americans), but since the left is not a church (only churches are “pure”) but political, you’d think they’d recognize the significance of such mighty revolutionary changes in the relations of production.

    Certainly overthrowing fuedalism/state relgion and establishing capitalism/democratic secular government was a HUGE historic advance, including for farmers and workers.

    I’m not sure, as you seem to be, that we are playing a progressive role in the world today, but certainly through the US Civil War we did.

    “Imagine” would be a great anthem, but not only for the USA, maybe for BRIC or something, eh? I mean, by definition, how could “Imagine” be for only one country?

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