Let's dump `Banner' for `Beautiful'

October 19, 2001|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Have you noticed anything missing from the chorus of patriotism that has risen from the ashes of Sept. 11? A star, perhaps? A spangle? A banner? In all the spontaneous singing that has turned a citizenry into a civic choir, the one song ordinary folks aren't singing much is the national anthem. That's because they can't sing it.

This is not a musical news bulletin. Before "The Star-Spangled Banner" was officially adopted by Congress in 1931, someone complained to the New York Times that the song was a "heaven-piercing abomination. No one with a normal esophagus can sing that without screaming."

It's not just the music that seems off kilter and key. The sentiment -- bombs bursting in air, rockets' red glare -- is so bellicose it sounds like West Point Muzak.

It's not surprising that our tonally challenged and patriotically engaged country has gravitated to two other contenders for the post of "real" anthem.

One is, of course, Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," a song that he originally wrote in 1918 for a show called -- don't ask -- Yip Yip Yaphank. I bow to no one in my affection for Irving, but any song that ends with "My home sweet home" sounds more like a wall sampler than an anthem.

This leaves one rightful heir to the throne: "America the Beautiful." May I say that it is way past time to replace Key's bellicosity with Katharine Lee Bates' paean to the land and the people.

I admit to being influenced in my decision by my friend and ABC News correspondent Lynn Sherr, who spent the last year writing an engaging small book on the story behind the song called, not surprisingly, America the Beautiful.

She became intrigued as a student, alumna, trustee and incorrigible booster of Wellesley College, where Katharine Lee Bates was an English professor.

Bates wrote the original poem in 1893 when she took her first trip out West. She would say later that the poem simply came to her on Pike's Peak, insisting, "I was its scribe rather than its author."

It was first published in 1895. After several attempts to set it to music, including a failed national contest, it was permanently joined with a melody previously written by Samuel Augustus Ward.

"America the Beautiful" is not a follow-the-bouncing-ball kind of song like "This Land is Your Land." It has a quieter majesty that goes beyond purple mountains and fruited plains. It's neither bombastic nor sappy, but clear-eyed and loving. If I may quote Lynn, the lyrics "celebrate not the military hardware but the hopes and ideals of people who love this country."

In Bates' second stanza, she writes "America! America! God mend thine every flaw/ Confirm thy soul in self-control/ Thy liberty in law!" These were the words of a patriot and a progressive who knew her country's imperfections as well as its beauties. In the third stanza, she wrote of "heroes" who "more than self their country loved/ And mercy more than life!" That's the heroism for justice.

"America the Beautiful" was recorded famously by both Elvis Presley and Ray Charles, sung elegantly by Willie Nelson at the recent telethon and played like a heartbeat by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in its memorial to Sept. 11. Put this cast together and you have a full spectrum.

I can imagine the bureaucratic red tape required to officially dump the "banner" for the "beauty." But today we are already voting ... with our esophagi and our emotions. "America the Beautiful" truly is our anthem.

Why not make it official?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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