Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thoughts on Patriotic Song

The other night I was rummaging through my shelves looking for an Elgar CD. I couldn't find it, and being in the mood to listen to some Elgar I started searching YouTube for some performances. I found some clips of the last night of the proms from recent years (the proms are a series of summer concerts in London). I had forgotten (if I ever knew) that at a certain point during the performance of Pomp and Circumstance everyone starts singing "Land of Hope and Glory," a British patriotic song whose lyrics were written to the music of P & C. I found myself staring in disbelief as members of the audience started waving Union Jacks and singing "wider still and wider may thy bounds be set/God who made thee mighty make thee mightier yet." It's fifteen years since the handover of Hong Kong, the Scots could well be on the verge of declaring independence, and a London audience is singing a prayer for imperial expansion.Link

I kept thinking, "The Brits really need to update their patriotic songs." I also kept wondering what was up with the people in the audience waving Norwegian flags (29 seconds in). But nationalism is about sentiment not rationality. No one in that audience seriously wants the UK to re-take India. Nevertheless it did make me reflect on the sense of national exceptionalism reflected in the some of the other songs from the proms, such as "Rule Britannia" and "Jerusalem" (the latter a Blake poem inspired by the legend that Jesus visited Britain as a boy).

Of course an American is hardly one to point fingers at the people of another country for any cultural hint they think they're better than everyone else. Hell, in this country nobody hints any such thing: they shout it from the rooftops (or on Fox News). And yet that's strangely absent from most of our patriotic songs. Our national anthem is essentially a prayer for national survival. "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and "America the Beautiful" are songs that bespeak love of a physical place ("I love thy rocks and rills/Thy woods and templed hills"). If I actually had to choose a new anthem (not that anyone's ever going to ask me) I might opt for "Shenandoah" (O Shenandoah, I long to hear you/Away you rolling river...Away, I'm bound away, 'cross the wide Missouri"). It refers to a specific, albeit prolonged historical event (the settling of the West by Americans of European descent) but it reflects the immigrant's sense of loss, the reality that to go somewhere new, however much promise it holds, you have to give up something. It's not a peculiarly American experience—but it's certainly part of who we are as a nation.

And then of course, there's "This Land Is Your Land."

Doing some cursory research for this blog post I did discover some fascinating gems of American patriotic song. I had never heard "Hail Columbia" before. Composed in 1789, it has a delightfully eighteenth century sound:

But my possible favorite among my discoveries when I googled "American Patriotic Songs" is "Stalin Isn't Stallin'" a song written to drum up solidarity with one of Our Gallant Allies during World War II:

I'm sure the songwriter was blacklisted in the fifties. Songs such as "Stalin," "Hail Columbia" and "Shenandoah" should be better known to us—provided we could think about them in some historical context.

1 comment:

anarchist said...


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