“It is the national anthem, and it lies in waiting for the America that will someday sing it with one voice. Arthur only sleeps; he will return when Britain needs him most. So it is with Woody Guthrie and his most beautiful and dangerous song.
“But until then we have a lot of national anthems, as befits a nation of such size and variety, and the official one is the worst of them all, which is only fitting for a country that prides itself on its greatness in all things and loathes its government. Apart from its other routinely-mentioned defects — it’s unsingable, it’s about a minor war, and even the story told about its creation, which is the only thing it has going for it, isn’t true — “The Star Spangled Banner” is schlock enshrined as piety. Which should be no surprise — we’re a nation of hustlers and nouveau-riche climbers, and our taste is as suspect as our intentions. We make things and sell them; whether art is involved doesn’t impact the bottom line, and only vaguely interests us. We know what we like.
“The first national anthem, “Yankee Doodle,” probably should have been retained, its goofy air of cussedness and the cheerful fuck-you attitude that allowed Americans to adopt it after the British sang it in mockery remaining wonderful evocations of the American spirit that has persisted in all the great pop production that made America the cultural force for good it has been in the world: American music, comics, movies, television, and comedy has always been chasing after the deliriously bizarre image of “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” ever since the meaning of the word changed. But of course it’s not self-serious enough for the other American spirit, the prim and proper spirit, the one that wears the top hat that, in the elemental American gag, gets knocked off by a chance snowball. It’s those people, in every country, who demand real national anthems, ones that can only be sung by choirs in four-part harmony with big brass accompaniment, rather than whistled by a kid walking barefoot down the road.
“The other two early nineteenth-century anthems — “America The Beautiful” and “My Country, ’Tis Of Thee” — are far more coherent as tunes and sentiments, but they’re still too sappy, and one of them even borrows the melody off “God Save The King/Queen.” Royalist treason! but of course that too is part of America; few Britons can manage to be quite so Anglophilic as a certain breed of idealistic American, as nineteenth-century lecturers, writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and anyone who ever argued on the internet about Britpop all discovered to their profit (or detriment, depending). And then there are the anthems of the Civil War — “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and “Dixie” — both of which have great sentimental value and are calibrated to offend and annoy at least half the population of the country. The self-righteous abolitionist fervor of the “Battle Hymn” would, that end accomplished (and once they been emancipated, fuck ’em), move on to the next moral horror destroying the nation: alcohol consumption. Which obviously turned out well. As for “Dixie,” well, the sovereign irony of the slave-owning South marching to war singing a song written from the perspective of a free black man (even if he does pine for the ol’ plantation) is its own reward.
““Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” combines the best of both worlds, the moral fervor of “Battle Hymn” and the democratic underclass perspective of “Dixie,” but the fact that none but black children are taught it (and not many of those, any more) has to date kept it from being embraced by the widest possible audience. And so into the twentieth century.
“The penultimate national anthem is, of course, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” the one that still gets sung at seventh-inning stretches not because anyone wants to but because everyone is too afraid of being called unpatriotic to suggest cutting it and just doing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” which was good enough for our grandfathers, who kicked Hitler’s ass, for God’s sake, but I digress. In fact, the obnoxious omnipresence of “God Bless America” is a direct echo of the circumstances surrounding it: Berlin, who famously never wrote a song unless he felt its sentiment keenly himself, wanted to write a patriotic song to lift America’s spirits out of the Depression. The ghetto-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants who despite not being able to read music or play in more than one key became the most popular and beloved songwriter alive in America, he was honestly grateful to the country which had given him the opportunities which he, with a sharp-eyed hustler’s instinct for the main chance, had grabbed onto with both hands. “God Bless America,” especially as sung by the big, blowsy-voiced alto Kate Smith, became the de facto national anthem, especially once we got into the war and pietistic nationalism was the order of the day throughout popular culture.
“In New York, a fellow-traveling Okie who loved nothing more than reinventing himself, unless it was sticking it to capitalists, was sick and tired of hearing Kate Smith boom out “God Bless America” every ding-durned day on the radio, practically as regularly as a station identification. In fact the more he thought about it, the more pissed off he got. It was capitalist Republican humbug, and mawkish to boot. It was, in fact, better suited to a sentimental Eastern European parlor than to the grinning, wiry-muscled, cigarette-dangling, and dirty with the dirt of many roads America which he knew, or believed he knew; like most idealistic autodidacts, he believed implicitly in the truth of his wide experience. He’d write one better.
“He recorded “This Land Is Your Land” for Asch for the first time in 1944, and played and sang it everywhere he got the chance, encouraging others to do the same. It wasn’t formally published until the 1950s, and even then came with the copyright legend “This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.” (Woody really was from rural Oklahoma, but he embellished the nonstandardness of his dialect as much as possible out of perversity and a leavening sense of fun.) He snarkily subtitled it “God Blessed America,” accent on the past tense, meaning His work is done, it’s up to us to figure out and implement the best use of what we’ve been handed, rather than waiting on Biggest Brother to sort out our shit for us.
“But the real spirit of the song isn’t in its hail-fellow-up-yours rejoinder to Tin Pan Alley, or even in its infamous anti-capitalism verse (a version of which is included in this cut of the song, though not as direct as in some takes). In its broadminded embrace of the vastness and variety of the nation, it’s the first national anthem since “America The Beautiful” to describe patriotism as a love of the country rather than the civilization. It’s about the land, and the people on it, not the government or the military or the moral rectitude or even the culture, popular or otherwise. And Guthrie’s plainspoken directness even avoids the picture-postcard prettiness and sentimentalism of “America The Beautiful.” Instead of amber waves of grain (symbolizing the agricultural wealth of the Midwest), there’s a plain ribbon of highway; instead of fruited plains (which doesn’t even make sense, the plains are barren, that’s what makes them plains) there’s a golden valley. Everything, that is, exists in potential, not categorical, terms for Woody.
“And America at its best, at its most honest and fundamental core, is also a nation of potentiality. It’s why we developed film and comics and recorded music into such uniquely immediate narrative forms. To pluck (say) Cary Grant out of history, to capture and preserve him forever in The Philadelphia Story or Arsenic And Old Lace or Bringing Up Baby, is to give the finger to death and decay. The slow decline and sudden shock of nonexistence have no place in movies, except as part of an intelligible, sane moral order. Dorothy Parker’s bon mots can live forever, even as the witty pixie of the 20s becomes the alcoholic bitch of the 50s and 60s; Bing Crosby’s golden, reassuring burble on record can establish a corner of idyllic harmony in which he never abused his kids or fucked anyone over; Krazy and Ignatz can keep hurling bricks and sonnets at each other into infinity even as George Herriman’s ashes blow across the pink mesas. Movies and records and yes printed material too establish miniature universes in which the unresolved tensions and categorical evils of this one need not apply; all art is artificial, and all pop is art. […]
“I have come within the last several years to accept the fact that I love my country (the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of a youth spent abroad with a clear view of her cruelty and arrogance needs no further elaboration), and it is the music she has given the world that has reconciled me to her. This, I thought, should be explained. I have attempted to do so.
“But I would not be misunderstood. […] I no more love what she was than I love what she is; and what she is — a nation of self-satisfied gluttons addicted to shrill nonsense and perfectly willing to destroy the planet in the name of convenience and profit — is of all possible nations the least lovable.
“But of course that is not all America is. Nothing is ever all America is. So because I love her potential, I love her infinite variety; every version of America is possible in such space. From the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters. From California to the New York island. The sparkling sands of her diamond desert. The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling: either alone is intolerable, smug fatness or apocalyptic despair, but together they sum up the contradictions, the extremes, the combination, in every imaginable ratio, of great evil and great good, which means America. As it means everywhere. To be a true patriot, as G. K. Chesterton noted, is to embrace all the earth in one’s fierce pride of place, because our common humanity is, at last, our only refuge from the darkness which howls within us and without.
“This is why I listen to the music of the 40s, and of every era, why like any good history obsessive I rage against the forgetting of anything however trivial; the more opportunities we have to connect, to observe and embrace our common humanity in all its difficulty and squalor and pretension and meaninglessness and fragile beauty across the street or across the ocean or across the ages, the better we’ll be. This is the very opposite of the art snob who thinks that exposure to the Great Works of Humanity makes him a better person; it’s exposure to humanity period that does it, and that humanity is present in everything.
“America, fuck yeah. Copulation and affirmation. Ain’t nothin’ more American, ’cause ain’t nothin’ more human. Happy trails, motherfuckers. See you round the bend.”
- Don’t Stay Up Too Late
- The Powerful History of a Popular Hymn
- C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America