Last week, on the 4th of July, America turned 241 years old. Did you bring a birthday present? What do you get for the country that has everything? It has amber waves of grain, it has purple mountain majesties, it has oceans white with foam. Most of these assets are highly leveraged to the Chinese at the moment, so you’d better get out and see them now because they’re planning to turn them into a giant Legoland.
This year’s Independence Day was sitting there independently in the middle of the week, on a Wednesday, which is impossible to make a long weekend out of. Who’s with me on this: let’s keep Independence Day on July 4th, but observe it from the beach on a Monday, where I can patriotically dip myself into one of those sea-to-shining-seas that I’ve been hearing so much about. This year we had a quiet little barbecue by the pool, no drinking, no carrying on, and we listened to the fireworks exploding all around us in the evening.
It’s always a great day for the national anthem. Luckily the copyright is still good, or we could be singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” If you try it in your head you’ll see it’s not as bad as you thought.
It’s hard to write a good national anthem, because there are a lot of factors involved. Francis Scott Key wrote the poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry” during the War of 1812, sitting in a jail cell while the fort was being bombarded. He decided to use a conversational tone. He writes, “O, say...” here and there, as if he’s just killing some time describing this flag situation until the bombs stop and they can pick up something at the deli. “O, Canada,” on the other hand, has no conversational tone, because Canada is a huge place, and there is nobody else around to talk to. Instead, the words speak directly to the country itself, promising to “stand on guard for thee.” It’s worked pretty well as a national security plan, as long as nobody falls asleep on duty.
I have to give Francis Scott Key credit, because it’s hard to find anything that rhymes with “star-spangled.” New-fangled? Right-angled? Hair-tangled? Casey-Stengeled? If you watch people’s lips when they try to sing the song at a ballpark, you’ll see all sorts of unusual things. Nobody knows the order of the bursting, streaming or gleaming, and is it the night that’s perilous or the fight?
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is actually four verses long, and gets bleaker and gloomier as Key realizes that there is no coffee maker in the jail cell. I would have put a guitar solo in between the first and second verse, and maybe start the song off with some cowbell, but that’s just nitpicking. The tune that we chose to go with the poem is a British folk song called “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and it’s too bad we couldn’t come up with something American. Before 1931, when Congress made things official, people were using “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” as our national song, which has exactly the same tune as Great Britain’s national anthem. It would have been pretty embarrassing to have a country that ‘tis of thee and a national anthem melody that ‘tis of somebody else’s.
Yes, the song hard to sing. The trick to singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” is to start the song as low as you can sing. I recommend going down at least one flight of stairs before you even start. When you get to “the rockets’ red glare” you’re going to thank me for that advice. I like our national anthem. It has depth, it has weight. I don’t mind that you can’t sing it, you can’t remember the words and you can’t dance to it. They said the same thing about “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and who’s laughing now? As long as I can barbecue to it, and and I live in a land where I am free to use any barbecue sauce I want, we’re good.
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