How America chose the wrong anthem and then destroyed the meaning of the one they should have chosen

By Rob Delves, Green Issue Co-editor

The “nuclear-powered submarine” decision announced on September 15th is intended to bind us even closer to following Uncle Sam into whatever war it next chooses, as we’ve done over the last 60 years supporting the magnificently just and victorious invasions of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Many Greens have told me the multitude of reasons why this is a disastrously wrong decision, so I won’t repeat their wisdom. Instead, I want to reflect on America’s two most famous patriotic songs – and how they chose the wrong one as their anthem and then ruined the much better one by giving it a neoliberal interpretation. I think this tale says much about the nation whose bed we are now locked into sharing more passionately.

Let’s begin with some choice lines from the wrong choice: The Star-Spangled Banner, which was written during the 1812 war against the British and has been the anthem since 1931:

And the rocket's red glare, the bomb bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?


Blest with vict'ry and peace may the heav'n rescued land

Praise the power that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just

Kurt Vonnegut’s magnificent satirical novel Breakfast of Champions includes these three superb observations about the national anthem as applied to his lovely anti-heroes, Dwayne and Kilgore:

1. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously.

2. There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

3. The undippable flag was a beauty, and the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren't for this: a lot of citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have comforted them some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness, had somehow welcomed them to the society and its real estate.

Oh to be able to love your country so much that you could satirise it so superbly! Wonderful writer ‒ but I doubt he’d get elected. My other favourite satirical take on the anthem is the scene from the movie Borat where he goes to the rodeo and sings the (made up) Kazakhstan national anthem to the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner. I doubt he’d get elected either – in fact it’s amazing he escaped from the stadium alive.

Now let’s compare it to the song they should have chosen: America the Beautiful. The opening stanza is best known, especially as the last four lines are repeated at the end of the song:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

The song was first written as a poem in 1895 by Katharine Lee Bates, as she returned from a trek up Pikes Peak, the dramatic 4,300 metre high jewel of the Colorado Rockies. The first four lines are generally taken as a description of the awesome beauty she saw around her from the summit. Bates was a remarkable woman, born into poverty in a community that practised what she described as a kind of “neighborly socialism." She became an ardent feminist and social reformer, working to help those struggling to make ends meet. Her values were epitomised in these words: "I don’t want to feast with the few, I want everyone to be included in whatever bounty there is."

I love this song desperately, as it brings together what both Christianity (or any religion) and patriotism can be at their best. What is being praised and treasured here is the natural beauty of the country that God has given the people. It’s in what I regard as the wonderful Christian tradition of grace – appreciating the natural world as an unearned gift that we should respond to with gratitude and deep humility. Bates then writes that the people should be inspired and challenged to forge a “brotherhood” – a society of equal beauty to the natural world, one where everyone is included, everyone matters. The values embedded in this patriotism are about as far away as is possible to imagine from the militarism and triumphalism of The Star-Spangled Banner, which aggressively proclaims the country’s greatness as fact. For Bates, greatness has nothing to do with the flag still waving after victory in battle. Greatness is an aspiration – can this nation show its gratitude for being given all her natural beauty by living up to its beautiful ideals of equality and brotherhood?

The reason there’s a desperation in my love for this song is that its meaning has been given a harsh neoliberal twist that takes it far away from what Katharine Bates clearly intended. It’s most stark in the interpretation of the line “God shed his grace on thee.” Shed is one of those strange verbs where the present and past tense have the same sound and spelling. Bates clearly does not intend “shed” to be understood in the past tense, but neither is it the simple present tense. She intends it as an aspirational word – “(May) God shed his grace on thee.”  The next line confirms this interpretation, because “crown” is not a past tense verb, so it expresses the hope the people will be inspired to achieve brotherhood. Later in the poem it becomes even more certain because May is no longer implied but is included where it suits the rhythm of the line:  "May God thy gold refine / Till all success be nobleness / And every gain divine."

Linguists use terms such as the Hortative mood or Subjunctive mood to describe situations when verbs are used in this way, expressing what the speaker hopes for, or wishes to be true; for example may our minds be happymay the gods confound you, let us hope that…, let us pray that...  Often the word may is implied, as in God save the Queen. So the poem clearly reads as a plea for God to continue shedding grace on the people and for them to respond by using their material wealth for the common good. Given what we know of the background and beliefs of Katharine Bates, this meaning is certain – it could not be otherwise.

Yet many Americans now interpret shed in the past tense, a statement of fact. As they sing along, they’re understanding the song to mean something like this: “we deserve the beautiful country God has given us and He has rewarded our goodness by making us rich and powerful, because of our hard work and great values.” Straight out of Reagan and Bush. It’s assertive, triumphant ‒ God has given us what we deserve. Basically the same poisonous values (minus the war-mongering) as the current anthem which shouts in glee that we are the land of the free and the home of the brave. Its meaning has been distorted to fit perfectly with the neoliberal Prosperity Gospel where gratitude and humility for God’s grace is replaced by belief in achievement and just deserts measured by how much wealth you’ve accumulated. In Australia, of course, Abbott and Morrison sing lustily from this hymn sheet. 

It makes me weep that a faith I now reject, but still respect, has had its best values discarded and is now used as a justification for violence, inequality and a rampant individualism that despises those who are left behind. What also makes me weep is that a musician I greatly love, Ray Charles, has helped drive this change. His renditions of the song are probably the most famous. He often added or replaced words and phrases that make it clear the song means “look how great we are.” Here’s a classic: it’s from his rendition at game two of the World Series in 2001(with his changes underlined).

God done shed his grace on thee – oh yes he did

And crowned thy good – I doubt you remember – saving brotherhood

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as once he became famous, his personal life was straight out of the neoliberal playbook – shameful treatment of women and of musos desperate to get a chance to play with him.

I’ll finish by sharing the most emotionally-rich personal take on America the Beautiful that I’ve read. It’s  from a guy called  Richard Branco. His parents are Cuban-American, he was a civil engineer for 20 years, then became a teacher of creative writing at Florida International University.

How I sang O, beautiful like a psalm at church
with my mother, her Cuban accent scaling-up
every vowel: O, bee-yoo-tee-ful, yet in perfect
pitch, delicate and tuned to the radiant beams
of stained glass light. How she taught me to fix
my eyes on the crucifix as we sang our thanks
to our savior for this country that saved us—
our voices hymns as passionate as the organ
piping towards the very heavens... 

How I began to read Nietzsche and doubt god,
yet still wished for god to “shed His grace on
thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood.”

How I still want to sing despite all the truth
of our wars and our gunshots ringing louder
than our school bells, our politicians smiling
lies at the mic, the deadlock of our divided
voices shouting over each other instead of
singing together. How I want to sing again—
beautiful or not, just to be in harmony—"from
sea to shining sea”—with the only country

I know enough to know how to sing for.

If he was as good at civil engineering as he is at writing, I’m sure he must have designed some truly beautiful bicycle paths.

Header photo credit: flicka.com

[Opinions expressed are those of the author and not official policy of Greens WA]