Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Defending America’s National Anthem
and the U.S. Constitution

Last week’s observance of the 235th anniversary of America’s independence from Great Britain, which created a nation that provided a level of individual freedom unmatched by any other nation in human history, was marred by suggestions that we abandon two fundamental national components.

Writing in the July 3rd edition of Parade magazine, Lynn Sherr asks if we need to change our National Anthem to a different song. “It’s Fourth of July weekend: fireworks, flags, and a chorus of American voices desperately trying to hit the high notes in The Star-Spangled Banner,” she began. “The song can be treacherous even for the pros—just ask Christina Aguilera, the most recent star to muff the lyrics. In fact, many people consider ours the world’s least singable National Anthem. So is it time for a change?”

As someone who loves his country and honors and respects its symbols, who believes that even with its flaws and faults it is the most wonderful place to live on Earth, and who understands and appreciates the intricacies of musical performance, The Star Spangled Banner is a subject that often causes me severe irritation.

Leave aside that Ms. Sherr confused Ms. Aguilera’s botching of the lyrics as evidence that the melody is “treacherous”; you don’t change the National Anthem because Christina Aguilera can’t remember the words, or because it has “high notes” that make it difficult to sing. Many Americans can’t sing Mary Had a Little Lamb or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, either.

She said that many people think America the Beautiful would better serve as the National Anthem, because it “celebrates the nation’s spacious skies and shining seas rather than a long-forgotten naval battle in the War of 1812. Supporters have long loved its optimism—and, they note, you can actually sing it.” Well, some can. And why not study the origins of Francis Scott Key’s lyric, so you’ll understand why it’s important?

We’ve become too eager to throw off traditions in favor of the latest fad. Should we change the American flag from the stark colors of red, white and blue to more “artistically pleasing” colors like salmon, beige and iceberg?

The main problem with the National Anthem is the people who sing it to open an event. Too often that person treats the song like they are a contestant in some beer hall karaoke contest, filling it with every turn, slur and yodel they can muster. People selected to perform The Star Spangled Banner must respect the sanctity of the song, and not try “to make it their own” with egotistic, bombastic vocal pyrotechnics designed to wow the crowd, not to celebrate their country.

In the absence of qualified singers one of the ample recordings of the song being sung well could be used, or it can also be performed by instrumentalists; whatever it takes to have it performed respectfully and musically.

Time magazine ran an article last month titled “One Document, Under Siege” featuring a photo of a shredded Constitution. Written by Richard Stengal and Andréa Ford, it said, in part: “The Constitution does not protect our spirit of liberty; our spirit of liberty protects the Constitution. The Constitution serves the nation; the nation does not serve the Constitution. That's what the framers would say.”

But Mr. Stengal and Ms. Ford are also confused. What the framers would say is it what they did say, in the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union … and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The framers were concerned not with the “spirit” of liberty, but with securing and preserving “actual” liberty.

It isn’t a question of whether the Constitution serves the nation, or vice versa, it is that the Constitution deliberately prescribed a government whose role is limited in order to prevent a recurrence of the oppressiveness from which the Colonists had just unburdened themselves. And it did a pretty good job of providing a marvelously free environment in which Americans could thrive, until we began to lose sight of its intent and liberalized its interpretation, allowing government to grow out of control so that the very entity created to protect our freedom is now the entity that so often threatens it.

As we prepared to celebrate our liberty, one writer was ready to throw away the song that we chose to represent our great nation, and two others demonstrated that they fundamentally misunderstand everything important about its founding and governing document.

Unfortunately, they have a lot of company. We have failed to adequately teach at least two generations of Americans about our nation’s founding in such a way that they understand and appreciate what the United States of America is all about. Far too many of us are ready to throw off inconvenient and unpopular ideals. These ideals have made America the greatest nation in history, and we need to restore them, not replace them.

Those who don’t like the ideals upon which America was founded might find other places more to their liking.

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Anonymous said...

I would like to that singing the National Anthem like a karaoke contest is what makes this country so great.
America is one of the freest country's on Earth, Where you can say what you want and get your voice out there. But then why is our National Anthem so strictly guarded? I don't think it is disrespectful to change the song, instead it is a celebration of our freedoms.America a country that created one of the freest forms in music, jazz, allows no freedom in it's most sacred song.

James Shott said...

A person who values things holds those things above and more valuable than other things. It may be a religious text, or it may be the song that represents your country, or whatever.

That is how I view the National Anthem; special, not like a top 10 rock tune, perhaps sacred.

If you want to show off your vocal acrobatics, then take a Springsteen song or some other everyday tune that means nothing more than being an everyday tune.

Our National Anthem deserves to be performed with respect, not treated like a kindergarten song. Sing it or play it as written, and don't try to impress everyone with how good you are. Put your ego on the shelf. It's not about you; it's about the nation and the song that represents it.