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.