Two hundred and six years ago today, September 13, 1814, events in Baltimore, Maryland, wound up having a significant impact on America culture, particularly sporting events, but I’ll get back to that.
The thing is, though, that countries have this habit of having national anthems, which are the big patriotic sing-alongs that precede important events, like sporting matches </sarcasm>. I suppose they also show up at important governmental ceremonies and on holidays related to independence or important military events.
But this whole national anthem thing is so important that only one country on the planet does not have one: Cyprus. The short explanation of why: When the UK gave Cyprus its freedom, the new country did create a flag and all that other folderol, but the majority population still considered themselves to be Greek, and so the public voted for just staying with the Greek anthem.
Of course, the Greek National Anthem in its full form is also the longest anthem in the world, which is why it’s usually shortened for sporting events and the like. When played in the shorter version, Uruguay steps into first place when it comes to length — well over six minutes.
On the other end of the spectrum is Uganda’s national anthem, weighing in at a whopping nine measures — although listening to it, I’m not sure how they’re counting. In any case, it weighs in at just under a minute and twenty seconds.
Not all anthems have lyrics, though, and currently four countries do not: San Marino, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Spain.
The other example will be much more recognizable to English speakers: Liechtenstein and the United Kingdom — although this one is also a triple threat, because most Americans will recognize the melody as the decidedly non-anthem tune My Country ‘Tis of Thee.
This is not the first time that the former colonies will steal a British tune for a patriotic song, by the way.
At least most people outside of the U.S. don’t assume that this tune is the anthem. Not so much with Australia, which quite often has the decidedly non-waltz tune Waltzing Matilda mistaken by foreigners as its national anthem. The real one is the much less fun Advance Australia Fair, while the British national anthem, God Save the Queen, is the royal anthem of Oz, but not the national anthem.
To be honest though, if you click the link and listen, the real Australian national anthem is pretty damn inspiring.
My favorite anthem story, though, is how Mexico’s came about — whether the tale is apocryphal or not. In 1853, the Mexican government had put out a call for contest entries to create a national anthem. Of course, this happened under a president who, Santa Anna, who was unpopular in the U.S. because he’s the one who kicked ass at the Alamo but also unpopular in Mexico because he lost half of the country’s territory to the U.S. despite the Alamo.
Although he had entered and lost before, poet Francisco González Bocanegra was finally coerced into trying again when his girlfriend basically took him to her parents home and locked him in a bedroom with a quill, ink, parchment, and lots of inspirational photos and whatnot from Mexican history.
He had insisted that he wrote love poems, not patriotic odes, but maybe he wound up writing a love poem to Mexico, and that resulted in his lyrics, set to music by a composer he would never work with again, becoming the Mexican Himno Nacional.
At least his was somewhat based in the revolution that began on September 16, 1810 with the Grito de Dolores and a Catholic priest ringing his church bell and calling out to his parishioners words to the effect of, “Won’t you free yourselves from 300 years of oppression?”
And so, they did.
That’s why el 16 de setiembre is Mexican Independence Day and why el 5 de Mayo is no big deal — kind of the same reason that July 4 is American Independence Day, but September 13 is no big deal, either.
So by most commodious vicus of recirculation we return to Howth Castle and environs… name that reference, and did I say Howth Castle? I meant we return to the opening paragraph of this article.
Two hundred and six years ago today, September 13, 1814, events in Baltimore, Maryland, wound up having a significant impact on America culture, particularly sporting events, and now I’m back to that.
It was during the U.S.’s first war as an independent nation, and it was a battle against Canada, acting as a proxy to get back at us for having been not nice to Daddy, aka the UK. Canada was only our younger step-sibling, though, still basically living at home, and although we had been friendly with his mother, France, she’d definitely gotten way too friendly with the locals in the meantime.
Hell, we didn’t even speak the same language anymore. But Canada had to get cocky and wound up burning our capital city down in 1812, and that was not fun. It looked bad until what was basically a very obscure but ultimately decisive battle in the harbor outside of Baltimore.
Baltimore was protected by Fort McHenry, and despite the best efforts of a spoiled teen who had not yet learned his manners, we somehow managed to defend the place.
Watching the entire time from jail across the bay, some poet named Francis Scott Key took notes, wrote lyrics, and came up with this whole thing about rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air and so on.
What most Americans don’t know is that we only ever adapted the first eight lines of the song to become our national anthem over a century later, and that there are 28 more which are… not as pleasant or encouraging.
On top of that, the melody came from The Anacreontic Song, which was basically a frat boy drinking tune technically written in North America, but while the colonies were still a part of the UK.
Also, unlike a lot of national anthems, it is notoriously difficult to sing, despite every Joe and Jane Schmoe in the ballpark being expected to sing along anyway. This does not always end well.
So… a song based on a minor battle from a largely forgotten war with what is now our closest ally, with lyrics dashed off from prison and set to a frat boy drinking tune, and with the verses that no one knows being just really, really wrong… and that becomes our national anthem?
Nah. We can do better, and we can pick something not at all related to war. Just as Waltzing Matilda is often thought of by outsiders as Australia’s anthem, I have a much better idea for the U.S., because it’s a song that touts our virtues without being bellicose, and it’s just a beautiful melody that anyone can sing.
And that song, of course, is America the Beautiful, which I’m sure that a lot of foreigners already thought was our national anthem as well. Or maybe not. They tend to not be as ignorant as Americans when it comes to stuff like that.
Or just go with Arlo Guthrie’s take on his father’s song. Which, actually, is the most inclusive version and doesn’t involve war at all.
Speaking of national anthems, I have to include this little bit here from an amazing young YouTuber who goes under the name of KestrelTapes, and who is just such a ridiculously talented musician that it boggles my mind.
No, really — being a keyboardist myself, his skills just astound me. Beyond that, though, is this whole layer of comedy he drops on top of it, because I have not seen somebody this able to be so deadpan while making serious art since Keely Smith or Buster Keaton.
This is the face of someone who really knows what the hell they’re doing, and if he wants to, his career is going to take off like a rocket one day. He just so happens to have his own take on national anthems, so I’m going to close with hit here.