We Sing America

By Bobbie Kirkhart

I think it’s likely true that the people of all nations love their patriotic songs even when they don’t agree with their message.

I love American patriotic music, although some of the lyrics are much too bellicose and virtually all of it is much too religious for this atheist to embrace. And the music itself may or may not be American. Indeed, the music of one of our most prominent songs, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” is the British national anthem “God Save the Queen.” This rendition is sung by Aretha Franklin at Barack Obama’s inauguration:

Perhaps more ironic is the fact that our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” a poem written in praise of our efforts against the English in the War of 1812, is set to the tune of a British drinking song, “The Anacreontic Song.”

Outstanding among the American patriotic music actually written by Americans are the marches by John Philip Sousa, known to this day as the March King. Sousa led the United States Marine Band for 12 years from 1890 on. He then established the Sousa Band which toured the United States and Europe for 40 years. His marches came with words, but they aren’t very good, which is likely the reason they are rarely sung, although generations of adolescents have enthusiastically sung crude parodies to Sousa music. With the rousing score, these marches needed no words. Perhaps his best composition was “Stars and Stripes Forever.” 

While most of our patriotic music is religious, some call on God more than others. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is much more hymn than anthem. Its melody grew from camp meetings, usually outdoor Protestant revivals popular in the early 19th century. During the Civil War, Union soldiers at Fort Warren used the tune to honor an abolitionist martyr. As they marched they sang “John Brown’s body lies amolderin’ in the grave.” Abolitionist writer Julia Ward Howe thought this a bit morbid, so she wrote the now well-known lyrics.

Beloved composer Irving Berlin was an atheist, but he wrote “God Bless America.”  Originally composed for a Broadway show, it was sung during World War I. But its greatest popularity came in World War II, when singer Kate Smith made it her anthem. It’s a song Americans like when we’re frightened. After the destruction of New York’s twin towers on September 11, 2001, it became the tradition for American baseball fans to stand and sing this plea during the traditional seventh inning pause in the game.

America the Beautiful” was my favorite patriotic song in childhood, and my love for it has lasted to this day, albeit with a caveat. Katherine Lee Bates, professor of English literature in Massachusetts, traveled west in 1895. Her awe of the scenery was enhanced in the southern Rocky Mountains, atop Pike’s Peak in Colorado, where she was inspired by the view to write the poem. I was attracted to the song by the time I was 10 years old, certainly for the picturesque verses, but especially because the chorus acknowledged that we have faults. In the 1950s, children (and adults, for that matter) were strongly discouraged from noting our country’s “every flaw,” and as a loud-mouth kid I got my share of discouragement.

My devotion to the song was challenged in high school history class when I learned that the phrase “sea to shining sea” was a reference to manifest destiny, an idea Americans held from early days. It meant that we, that is, European settlers, were fated to rule all the way across the continent. At the cost of millions of Native American and Mexican lives, we had met that goal almost half a century before Katherine Bates wrote her poem, and I was crestfallen to learn that my idol gloated about that slaughter (as some Americans still do). It turns out she didn’t. The line was first added a year after her death, when the poem was being adapted to fit the music by Samuel A. Ward. It is still in the song, however, to my chagrin.

And finally, there is my absolute favorite: “This Land is your Land,” written by folk singer Woodie Guthrie to remind us all that the country we live in belongs to the people. Some Native Americans believe the song celebrates an entitlement of the conquerors, but both the words of the song and the life of Woody Guthrie make me think he meant that the privilege and responsibility of enjoying our country belongs to all of us, regardless of our history. We must not cede this right to the power mongers.

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Bobbie Kirkhart is a past president of the Atheist Alliance International and of Atheists United. She is a founder and past vice president of the Secular Coalition for America. She is a frequent contributor to U.S. freethought publications.