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No. 2072:
The Star Spangled Banner

Today, a national anthem has come and gone. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My interest in the history of technology, has left me acutely aware of how the sands shift continually under our feet. That's equally true of our machines and our culture. And one aspect of our culture is our expression of nationalistic pride. 

I've always felt a huge pride in this great continent-spanning country -- it's beauty, the way we form a Heinz-57 variety of occupants, our peculiar freedom-driven animation. Yet I feel constantly pushed by new ideas as to how I should express that pride. 

Example: I was 24 and serving in the army when my government, locked in a cold war with communism, decided to add the words "under God" to the pledge of allegiance. My public schools had always insisted upon a clear separation of church and state. So you can imagine that I was gravely concerned when I saw God being claimed for nationalistic purposes. 

I was too young to have any such reaction when Congress made another directive, namely that the song, The Star Spangled Banner, should be our national anthem. So I was raised singing it. We sang it in school, we sang it at ball games and dinners. We sang it in the boy scouts and in church. We even sang its now-forgotten second, third, and fourth verses. (How many people today know that it has additional verses?)

Yet trouble has followed that choice of an anthem all my life. Finally, today's newspaper reports a recent poll in which Americans were asked to recite the words of the familiar first verse. Two thirds of American adults couldn't do it. 

The reason is clear enough: No one sings it anymore. We hear increasingly atrocious renditions sung for us, but we ourselves abandon it because it's too hard for us to sing. Times writer Michael Wilson went to a Julliard voice coach who rattled off the hurdles it presents to untrained singers: too great a range of pitch, a sustained high note on a hard-to-sing vowel -- generally poor text setting.

Without the sustained public school singing training that was commonplace sixty and seventy years ago, the general public can't handle its own national anthem, and neither can most of the pop singers who try to sing it for us.

Now a group of music teachers has created something called the National Anthem Project. It's traveling America trying to generate a new interest in The Star Spangled Banner. They say they want to reclaim the spirit of America that we've lost. Well, good luck. For I fear that what we've really lost is not spirit, but the technology, the knowledge of the technique, of singing itself. Perhaps they can do something about that. Let's hope so.

Purple mountain majesty

Meanwhile, just look out at America -- amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesty above the fruited plain. Then tell me we've lost our spirit. Maybe we need to admit that, back in 1931, Congress chose a song without properly looking at all the ramifications of it. That could happen, you know.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

M. Wilson, You Can Name That Tune, But Sing It? New York Times, National Report, Tuesday, March 14, 2006, pg. A15.

The setting of "America the Beautiful" at the end of the audio version of this episode is from America, The Dream Goes On, Boston Pops, John Oliver, Conductor, Phillips No. 412627-2, Track 5.

Photo by JHL