‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ — To sing or not to sing?

One of the better ideas to come out of the Reformation was the notion of community singing of hymns; it might be odd to consider, but congregational hymn-singing represents only 25% of the history of Christianity, coming into existence around the early 1500s. It was a way (so thought ol’ Luther himself) of binding people together during a very religiously and politically divisive time (sound familiar?…) and to mark with music a strong bond, if only for the duration of the hymn, between people that were working out their religious tenets in the newly-reformed faith.

Later, with the development of the idea of “nation-states” in the 18th and 19th centuries, citizens were to declare their patriotism and fealty to their country — not the Pope, nor an emperor — but a sovereign of a self-governing nation, a political union that usually defined itself through a common religion and/or ethnicity, but more often a common language. Singing bound a people together in a shared linguistic framework, energized powerfully with the potency of music.

Thus, it is surprising to see the difference in how this practice is employed in the United States vs. the rest of the planet. Almost without fail, when a sporting event is broadcast or a political rally is recorded on social media in other countries, the national anthem is literally shouted with a fervor that normal citizens show for little else — except in the USA. While one can witness people ripping their clothes, tears streaming down their faces as they fervently sing their national hymn, the richest land the world has ever known hires someone else to do the heavy lifting — we Americans “outsource” our anthem. And almost invariably it becomes a “performance,” often a very elaborate and frequently self-aggrandizing one. A professional “performs” while a bemused crowd waits to cheer at the appropriate high note.

What do we lose when we outsource our anthem? We lose the one chance to sing together as countrymen and women — without conflicting creedal statements that need to be hashed out or divergences in opinions of those who are religious and those who take a secular stance. We lose the chance to be heard WITH ONE VOICE, putting our differences, some very real and very sharp, aside for a brief moment in time so that we can state why we even bother trying to live together as brothers and sisters in this great land.

With all that divides us, we should take every chance to participate in activities that unite us.

The point isn’t to sing with perfect musical ability (listen to those soccer stars sing with way more heart than pitch!) A TRUE patriotism isn’t saying our country is better than all others; nor is it claiming a cheap resolution to nearly insoluble problems. But it does give us an opportunity to say we are grateful to live where we do, to have the very real freedoms we have. It is saying that we are grateful for and remember those who have sacrificed to give us what we have.

One step in this direction: sporting events announcers — please encourage the crowd to sing along, even if there is a vocal or instrumental soloist. At a recent Crystal Springs rodeo, the announcer was introducing the singer for the national anthem. He said, “She has only one request — don’t make her sing it alone.” The audience did not let her down. There were hundreds of us at the event, maybe even a couple thousand, and we all sang our hearts out. It was an amazing experience, and we hope to help create many more like it.

Not feeling good about aspects of our country and its history? Not sure you want to share a communal moment with people you are fairly certain oppose your particular political agenda? SING ANYWAY! There are many other ways and opportunities to voice protest.

We also understand, however, that there is no need to even bother with an enterprise such as the USA with our glowing Constitution and our high-minded Bill of Rights, unless we unequivocally support the right to protest. One remembers Voltaire’s ringing words “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

We urge our fellow citizens this coming Independence Day to “take back our national hymn” and politely, but firmly and with steady voice, sing our national hymn, clearly and fervently, in the hope that its concordant harmonies and its stirring words will help mend our differences and show us that–whatever color or creed or lack of one–we can, for at least an interval of time, forget our tribal allegiances and identities and sing as one American Family.


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