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Published: Monday, 3/15/2010

America's anthem star-spangled but not very catchy

THOUGH THEY ended two weeks ago, the exciting Winter Olympic Games are still fresh in my mind. That's because I can't get the Canadian national anthem out of my head. While my granddaughter was saying grace at dinner the other night, I was silently humming "O Canada."

I realize this may be the equivalent of poking a badger with a sharp stick, but I have to say it: When it comes to national anthems, Canada wins the gold and the United States might not make the podium.

Go ahead. Fire off the nasty e-mails and the angry letters to the editor. I consider myself as loyal and patriotic to the land of my birth as they come, so I can take the abuse.

However, when I stand up at a ballgame for "The Star-Spangled Banner," I mouth the words but I don't sing them. I can't. An octave and a half is beyond my capability.

If I start out low enough to hit the lows, I can't get high enough to hit the highs without screaming.

Inasmuch as most Americans are as vocally challenged as I am, why did we make the "SSB" our official national anthem in 1931, especially when we had other choices that would stir our hearts without straining our vocal cords?

Rendered by a gifted singer, our anthem is marvelous. If you haven't heard Bowling Green teenager Abby Paskvan's version, put it on your to-do list.

But problems occur when we turn the assignment over to somebody who has no business attempting it. Roseanne Barr comes to mind. Amateurs also often forget the lyrics.

Francis Scott Key's original poem, by itself, is fine. His words should rouse pride in every American who remembers the story of the brutal but ultimately unsuccessful British assault on Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814.

But the melody? Whoa. Not only is it difficult even for professional singers, the tune originated in England. It celebrated an ancient Greek poet named Anacreon, who was fond of good wine and good love - not that those are bad things.

In other words, we appropriated an 18th-century drinking song from the very country from which we had fled, a song that paid reverent tribute to the fruits of the vine, and we made it our national anthem.

If you want to have some fun, try substituting these lyrics as you sing "The Star-Spangled Banner":

To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee,

A few sons of harmony sent a petition,

That he their inspirer and patron would be;

When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:

Voice, fiddle, and flute, no longer be mute,

I'll lend you my name and inspire you to boot

And besides I'll instruct you like me to intwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus' vine.

I'm starting to tear up here.

If we were going to borrow from the British, why didn't we just go all the way and adopt "My Country 'Tis of Thee," or "America," as our anthem? Well, there's a good reason we didn't. The song, with different lyrics, is England's national anthem, "God Save the Queen."

OK, what about "America the Beautiful"? What's more inspiring than those "spacious skies" and "amber waves of grain," the "purple mountain majesties" and that magnificent "fruited plain?" Americans from "sea to shining sea" get choked up when they sing it, which, by the way, they can do with reasonable ease.

In spite of all that, is anything going to change? Absolutely not. Nor should it. Next year, "The Star-Spangled Banner" will have officially been America's anthem for 80 years. It will not be replaced, though many Americans, myself included, wish "America the Beautiful" had been selected in the first place.

So you have to hand it to the Canadians.

"O Canada" goes back to 1880, though it was not adopted as the official anthem until 1980, a century later. It was the work of Calixa Lavallee, a well known composer of his time.

Here's the first verse:

O Canada,

Our home and native land.

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The true north strong and free.

From far and wide,

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Great. Now I'll be humming it for another month.

Nice job, Canada. Good for you, eh?

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at:

twalton@theblade.com



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