The Big Idea

The Irrational Anthem

Sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in English? Who’s Bush kidding?

While answering questions in the Rose Garden last week, President Bush was asked about the Spanish-language version of the national anthem that’s been playing on the radio in connection with the nationwide pro-immigration demonstrations. “People who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English,” the president declared.

Ask aspiring Americans to barbecue a hamburger, explain the rules of baseball, or name all the Senate subcommittees, and they will learn. Ask them to walk a straight line while reciting the Constitution backwards, and they might master it. But if you’re going to require immigrants to sing our national anthem, you might as well spare them the torment and just ship them back home right now. If struggling Latino workers learned to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” in English, they’d be the only ones who could sing it at all.

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” which Congress designated as our official national anthem in 1931, presents unusual challenges for even the most nativist of native speakers. The first is mastering the lyrics penned by the lawyer-poet, and I hope better lawyer than poet, Francis Scott Key. Key wrote the verses in 1814 after witnessing the failed British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the war of 1812 and set his words—four verses’ worth—to the tune of a familiar English drinking song.

Key’s first verse, it is true, is etched onto most American minds by countless baseball games, where it concludes with subtle local variations: “… or the la-and of the freeeeeee, and the home of the BRAVES!” But even that familiar verse presents a daunting test of verbal comprehension. What is a rampart and how does it stream? Only on close reading, unlikely to occur with a hotdog in one hand and a baseball glove in the other, can one discern that the first word of the line is “o’er,” not “or,” and thus that it is the stripes of the flag that are gallantly streaming above the American fortifications.

Stop 50 people on the street of any American city, and you would be shocked to find one who could begin the second verse:

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

The excellent Wikipedia entry on the subject cites the Isaac Asimov story “No Refuge Could Save,” in which a Nazi spy is unmasked because he can recite the song’s full lyrics—including the story’s title phrase: No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave. No real American would know those lines. The song’s archaic language, employing such terms as “host” (for enemy force), “hireling” (for mercenary), “doth,” and ” ‘tis,” seems less suited to what John F. Kennedy called a Nation of Immigrants than to a nation of fusty Victorians.

Should Pablo and Pilar succeed in mastering the lyrics of the first verse, the music is almost certain to defeat them. By convention, the anthem is played in the key of B-flat major, which is too high for most untrained voices, especially when they reach the notes that correspond to the words “rocket’s RED GLARE” and “la-and of the FREEEEE.” These oft-screeched passages provoked the song’s nickname, “The Star-Strangled Banner.” To get through the verse also requires an extraordinary vocal range. You may be able to hum and muddle your way through in the company of 50,000 Yankees fans, a thundering organ, and a coloratura soprano on loan from the Met. But try it in the shower and you’ll see what I mean.

There are a number of unofficial and alternative national anthems that would present less of a challenge to Latino immigrants rallying around “Nuestro Himno,” a cloying, Latin-pop interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (and no improvement, incidentally, on the patriotically minded Spanish translation “La Bandera De Las Estrellas,” scored by Walter Damrosch and published in 1919). The perennial top candidates are the 1913 version of “America the Beautiful,” which was written by a Wellesley English professor named Katharine Lee Bates; Irving Berlin’s 1938 version of “God Bless America,” which became patriotic theme music in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001; and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which was written in 1940 as a kind of hobo’s answer to “God Bless America.”

Each of these aspiring anthems has its partisans. (See Slate’s dialogue on the subject.) I think any of them would be an improvement, but my vote goes to “This Land Is Your Land,” which most schoolchildren sing with enthusiasm and understanding by the age of 6. A classic American folk song, it movingly evokes the country’s physical grandeur while conveying national ideals of freedom and equality. True, Woody Guthrie was a bit of a Communist, but Francis Scott Key was a slave owner, for goodness’ sake.

Of course, I don’t expect Congress to modernize the national anthem any more than I expect it to get rid of other anachronistic fixtures of American life—the Electoral College, the copper penny, or Donald Rumsfeld. “The Star Spangled Banner” is one of those outdated institutions that survive for reasons of habit, sentiment, and sheer inertia. I doubt that the president himself can sing it. Please don’t make the pizza delivery guy try.