Is that night or fight?

September 14, 2004

TODAY'S THE BIRTHDAY of a song that's been buffeted almost as badly as the flag that inspired it, and the city in which it is set. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is Baltimore's gift to the nation, and 190 years after it was written we've still got ingrates who would rather have some other anthem. Let them go where the British Gen. Robert Ross went. Before commencing the battle of North Point, he declared that he would dine that night in Baltimore or in hell, and he never made it to Baltimore, because he was shot dead; that left the second option.

The complaints about our song are:

It's too hard to sing. You want "The Eensy-Weensy Spider" for a national anthem? Life's a challenge. The music should match.

It glorifies militarism. This is ridiculous. Those bombs and rockets were British. They were incoming. The Americans couldn't shoot back because the enemy ships were out of range, out there on the Patapsco. The glorious thing is that somehow or other the flag was still there.

The first verse ends with a question, even as the last notes go lower - which is not the way we talk, you know? Well, OK, but isn't there something brilliantly, restlessly, open-mindedly American in the idea of asking, rather than stating?

Some people prefer "God Bless America." But even Irving Berlin, who wrote it, thought it shouldn't be the anthem. It's terribly serious, you might say self-serious, which is dangerous. Because of the way baseball teams played it relentlessly during the seventh inning for several years after 9/11, whenever we hear it we always wonder about "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Come to think of it, that wouldn't be such a bad anthem, for were there ever more stirring words written than "If they don't win it's a shame"? But hockey fans would probably object.

Others like "America the Beautiful." That's a fine song, but, as with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," it's very easily parodied. And if you let an opera singer get her vocal cords around it, watch out!

Both those songs are about the wonderfulness of America. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is about the ideal of an indomitable America, and we like that. Baltimore's a tough city, and it gave America a tough song. Let's raise an anniversary toast, in a chipped glass, and wrap ourselves in the flag on this one.

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