09 February 2011

Voice Fiddle and Flute No Longer Be Mute

I see in the world at large that some pop singer is in trouble for mangling the US national anthem at a major sporting event. To be honest I’m not quite clear on who exactly Christina Aguilera is—an ex-Mouseketeer or something?—or what is the significance of the Superbowl in American culture. Early twenty-first century US history is way outside my field of study. Still, however, no matter my level of incompetency, I feel a few observations are in order.

We don’t really require much of a national anthem. It should be singable by the average untrained citizen, for one thing—no difficult intervals, range not much more than an octave, no tricky chord changes—and the words should be relatively simple. It should sound reasonably decent whether sung a cappella or played by a military brass band. It should invite people to sing along with it. “Paint it Black” would make a good national anthem.

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” however, fails on all counts. The music, with its octave-and-a-half range, seems made for the unearthly banshee howls of a theremin rather than a normal human voice, and the words are impenetrable in their obscurity. “Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming, whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, o’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?” Try diagramming that sentence sometime. Hey, now that the sun’s come up, can you still see the stars and stripes flying? You know, that thing we saluted so proudly last night and saw glimpses of it streaming over the ramparts while we watched the battle last night? That thing? Is it still there?

I mean, it must have been one hell of a moving moment for Mr. F. S. Key, held prisoner on a British ship till the battle ended, to “see by the dawn’s early light” that the American flag was still flying over Ft. McHenry, showing that the British attack had failed and at least for the moment the city of Baltimore had not fallen. But you had to be there. What does the defense of Ft. McHenry mean to a twenty-first century American citizen? Not much, apparently—as the first draft of a film presentation that escaped into the interwebs showed. Its author apparently thought that Ft. Henry (as he called it) was under attack during the Revolutionary War, not the misnamed War of 1812. The ace researcher whose account he used failed on even the simplest of facts.

And not to put too fine a point on it, Key himself doesn’t seem to have taken the thing too seriously. His piece was a double-retread—not only was the melody an old English drinking song (“To Anacreon in Heav’n”) but the words were recycled from an earlier song he’d written about the return of Stephen Decatur from the war with the Barbary pirates:
In the conflict resistless, each toil they endured,
’Till their foes fled dismayed from the war’s desolation;
And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscured
By the light of the Star Spangled flag of our nation.
Where each radiant star gleamed a meteor of war,
And the turbaned heads bowed to its terrible glare,
Now, mixed with the olive, the laurel shall wave,
And form a bright wreath for the brows of the brave.
Same tune, same star-spangled flag, same rhyming of wave with brave. Originality clearly was not Key’s strong suit.

And, you know, revisiting Key’s published output, I’m struck by one thing. To describe Key as a mediocre poet would be wrong. No, not just wrong—it would be a flat-out lie. It would be such over-the-top flattery that even Donald Rumsfeld would choke on the bald-faced mendacity of it. Key was a wretched poet. Not as bad as Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford, perhaps the brass-standard of wretched poets, but a vile wordsmith from the same misbegotten tribe. Sham religiosity, pedantry, forced rhymes, pedestrian observations—gack. Consider the eighth and final quatrain of his exquisite “To a Rose-Bud”:
Then haste, and when, with anxious step,
Thy growth to mark, I next shall walk,
Then let me see thy blushing head
Bend with its dewy weight thy stalk.
Or here’s Key apparently channeling the spirit of a backwoods pre-Victorian schoolgirl:
Farewell, ye once delightful scenes! farewell!
No more your charms can soothe my aching heart;
These long-drawn sighs, these flowing tears, can tell
How much I grieve, sweet scenes! from you to part.
[—opening verse of “Stanzas”]
And here’s Key picturing some joyous future scene when the deaf will finally hear:
They shall hear the trumpet’s fearful blast,
And the crash of the rending tomb,
And the sinner’s cry of agony,
As he wakes to his dreaded doom.
[—from “Lines Given to William Darlington, a Deaf and Dumb Boy”]
I bet the deaf kid could hardly wait for that moment. Seriously, this is our best? In a country that boasts the likes of Carl Sandburg and Wallace Stevens, this incompetent hack is our National Lyricist? And as for the music—again, in the land of Charles Ives, Duke Ellington, and Kurt Cobain we have to fall back on a tune written by John Stafford Smith, a composer who is not only obscure, but British to boot?

Who picked this thing, anyway? Wasn’t that John Philip Sousa, composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and other patriotic marches? Why the hell didn’t he write something himself? At the very least it would pass the brass band test.

It’s not like we don’t have a wealth of patriotic songs to choose from. What about “My Country ’Tis of Thee?” It’s singable, anyway. Okay, the lyrics suck and the tune is the British anthem “God Save the King”, but even so it’s better than what we got stuck with. And there’s “America the Beautiful”, right? Samuel Ward’s music is reasonably melodic, and not too hard for the average voice to wrap itself around. But the words…
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.
Yeah, there’s an image to conjure with. If human beings aren’t weeping, who, or what is, in these alabaster cities? Crocodiles? Okay, how about Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”?
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”
Say, what? That’s pretty strange stuff coming from a Unitarian, not hardly PC at all. And way too much God for our modern secular state. But it's stirring, you gotta admit.

Or we could consider Woody Guthrie’s paean to mindless greed, “This Land Was Made for You and Me”. Or Israel Baline’s trite but reliable “God Bless America.” They're both noted for their sing-along qualities at any rate. I mean, there are other possibilities.

I’ll give you one example. It’s singable, it passes the brass band test, it’s got eagles flying and freedom ringing and all that good stuff.
To hear the sound of freedom many gave their lives;
They fought for you and me.
Those memories will always live inside us,
And now it’s our time to be free.

Where the eagles fly I will soon be there.
If you want to come along with me my friend,
Say the words and you’ll be free
From the mountains to the sea
We’ll fight for freedom again.
Okay, maybe it sounds a bit more like an air force recruiting song than a patriotic hymn, but what about it? Anyone for Manowar?


Anonymous said...

Now, mixed with the olive, the laurel shall wave,

Sounds like someone building a martini, somehow. Weird.

but then, who expects lyrics to mean something ...?


Great entry. Glad to see you up and about! rfh

Ed Darrell said...

Not sure how you get to a conclusion that Guthrie's song was a paean to greed, especially with Woody's favorite verses, the ones usually left out by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

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