Whatever one might think of the US of A, they got good anthems. Watching Monday’s Presidential Inauguration, the high point for me was the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir giving it to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. What a song! What voices! (click to hear)
Wonderful as it is, the Battle Hymn of the Republic isn’t the only great song that Americans can sing at special events. And they all came out at President Obama’s Inauguration. James Taylor sang America the Beautiful and Kelly Clarkson gave a nice country twang to My Country tis of Thee. Beyoncé closed out the nation’s music with the official anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.
I especially like The Star-Spangled Banner because of the story behind it. As a Canadian, I feel a bit proprietorial about it. It came from an 1814 British Navy attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. The American forces won that battle and the tattered flag still proudly flew atop the fort. That sight prompted poet Francis Scott Key to write the words that, when set to music, became the national anthem. Despite winning that battle, the Americans lost the war. But they got a great anthem out of it. Lemons and lemonade: the fabled American entrepreneurial spirit.
My Country tis of Thee was the de facto anthem prior to the official selection of The Star-Spangled Banner in 1931. It uses the same melody as the older God Save the King/Queen. America the Beautiful also was used as an anthem and efforts have continued through the years to make it the official anthem or at least an official national hymn. The arguments presented for it as national anthem are that, compared to The Star-Spangled Banner, its melodic arrangement is easier to sing and its sentiments are not evocative of war.
Anthem double meanings
The official national march of the US is The Stars and Stripes Forever by John Philip Sousa. It is customarily played after the President gives a speech at a public event or ceremony. In circus and entertainment venues, it is called “the Disaster March” and is played only to signal to performers and personnel that there is a serious emergency.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic has its origins in the Civil War, on the Union side. But the tune was written a bit earlier, in 1856, being first used in a camp hymn called “Canaan’s Happy Shore” or “Brothers, Will You Meet Me?”. Early in the Civil War, Union soldiers used the tune as a marching song, with their own words. “John Brown’s body lies a’mouldering in the grave” was a bit of poking fun at one of their members named John Brown and the memory of the abolitionist John Brown who was hung after an attack on the Armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
In November 1861 Julia Ward Howe put new words to the tune at the request of a friend, Rev. James Freeman Clarke. The Battle Hymn of the Republic as we know it was born. Indeed, the melody and the words do stir one to an overwhelming urge to march or at minimum stand to attention and salute. It has become perhaps the pre-eminent national hymn of the US. For the most part, its allegiance to one side of the Civil War is overlooked.
Powerful music all. And in the lyrics, melody or musical adaptation of each, a part of the history of the nation is told.