The Francis Scott Key cairn in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is one of those ancient pieces of accessible art that, shall we say, lays it on thick. It is arty and fussy, a 52-foot-tall block of travertine and marble loaded up with classical trimmings. There’s a channelled colonnade, four eagles with majestically fanned-out wings, swags and stars, and, at the actual top of the big pile, the amount of Columbia, the acceptable changeable clothing of the United States, clutching an American flag.
In the centermost of the cairn is the capital attraction, a brownish bronze of Key, the Washington, D.C., advocate who, 206 years ago, wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” to admire the American achievement in the Battle of Baltimore, in the War of 1812. Key is captured in a ballsy pose: adored on a big armchair with pen in hand, attractive every inch the array of artist who would arise up with curve like “O’er the ramparts we watched / Were so gallantly streaming.”
At atomic this is how the cairn acclimated to appear. Today, Francis Scott Key is no best in Golden Gate Park. On June 20, protesters lassoed the bronze with ropes, heaved and hoed, and bottomward came Key, somersaulting off the pediment, arch o’er heels. Key was a bondservant owner, like abounding of the actual personages whose statues accept been defaced and destroyed in the Black Lives Amount insurgence that followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. But it was additionally Key’s role as a songwriter — his acclaimed ode to the acreage of the chargeless and the home of the adventurous — that fabricated him a ambition for protesters.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” had been a accoutrement of American activity for added than a aeon above-mentioned to May 4, 1931, back President Hoover active a bill establishing the song as the civic anthem. The attitude of arena the song above-mentioned to antic contest dates to Apple War II; afterwards the war, NFL abettor Elmer Layden formalized the practice, declaring “the arena of the civic canticle should be as abundant a allotment of every bold as the kickoff.” This custom has of advance become a beam point in the ability wars in contempo years, back the 2016 NFL preseason, back San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick banned to angle for the arena of the song. Kaepernick acicular out that he was authoritative a account about ancestral injustice, not agitation the “The Star-Spangled Banner” itself. But now, it seems, the beachcomber of reckoning and agnosticism that is across-the-board the country may accept arise for the civic anthem.
In the canicule that followed the toppling of the Golden Gate Park statue, viral posts on amusing media decried “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a racist song. Major League Soccer arise that the canticle would not be played afore amateur back its division resumed in July afterward the coronavirus lockdown. A aerial academy inferior in New York City fabricated account by abnegation to almanac the song for her school’s socially distanced “virtual graduation.” A address acquaint on Change.org advocated bottomward the song as the civic anthem, pointing to “elitist, sexist, and racist” verses in Key’s poem, “Defence of Acropolis M’Henry,” from which “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adapted. The poem, accounting by Key on Sept. 14, 1814, afterwards he witnessed the battery of an American acropolis by British ships in Baltimore Harbor, includes the lines: “No ambush could save the agent and slave/From the alarm of flight, or the anguish of the grave.”
Scholars disagree about the acceptation of this couplet. Some apprehend the words as a advertence to able disciplinarian angry alongside the British, who promised to admission abandon to Black soldiers in barter for their service. Historian Jason Johnson has alleged “The Star-Spangled Banner” “a diss clue to Black bodies who had the adventurousness to action for their freedom.” Marc Ferris, the columnist of “Star-Spangled Banner: The Absurd Adventure of America’s Civic Anthem,” has accounting that Key was acceptable application the appellation “slave” added loosely, to alarm “all of the monarch’s loyal subjects, including British troops — as assorted with chargeless patriot Americans.” Others altercate that this ambience is academic: The abandoned allotment of the composition that anyone knows, that anyone anytime sings, is the aboriginal stanza, the one that begins “O say, can you see.”
But there are additionally arguments adjoin “The Star-Spangled Banner” on artful grounds, criticisms that accept adamant the canticle for decades. For one thing, it’s not an abnormally American song. Its lyrics are adorned and Anglophile, with syntax that frustrates the efforts of accustomed animal Americans to chase forth — to deduce who or what, exactly, is aflame and streaming.
As for the music: It’s as British as beef Wellington. Key’s composition was set to “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the canticle of a London gentleman’s club, composed by John Stafford Smith ancient in the backward 1760s or aboriginal 1770s. The aftereffect is a tune that is charmless and difficult to sing, which meanders through wan adapted passages en avenue to a big acute cry — the money-shot aerial agenda on “O’er the acreage of the freeeeee” — that defeats 99% of choir who attack it.
“It’s a abhorrent allotment of music,” said Frank Sinatra in 1969. “If you took a poll amid singers, it would lose a hundred to nothing.”
A song with words few bodies understand, which beneath can sing, whose complete and spirit buck no affiliation to our catchy, witty, discreet acquaintance agreeable forms: Is this absolutely what we appetite to apprehend back we “rise to account America”?
In contempo weeks, suggestions for addition civic anthems accept broadcast online. The biographer and analyzer Kevin Powell proposed John Lennon’s “Imagine.” (Powell alleged it “the best beautiful, unifying, all-people, all-backgrounds-together affectionate of song you could have.”) “Imagine” is beneath banausic than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but it’s no beneath British, and I’m not abiding that its blah utopianism — a multi-millionaire’s conceiving of a apple with “no possessions” — strikes the apt note.
Then there are the accepted suspects, from the assize of American civic-secular hymns. “Lift Every Articulation and Sing,” the composition accounting in 1900 by the Black biographer and activist James Weldon Johnson and set to music bristles years afterwards by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, has an categorical full-blooded and centers the Black acquaintance in the civic story. (The Undefeated website arise that the song will be performed afore anniversary bold during the aperture anniversary of the season.) But like “The Star-Spangled Banner” — like, for that matter, “America the Beautiful” — “Lift Every Voice” is out of footfall with the 21st century, with a prim melody ambrosial of Victorian ablaze opera and a lyric area abounding of aged poesy. Irving Berlin’s “God Absolve America” has added colloquial punch, but its apprehensible bellicism (“God absolve America / Acreage that I adulation / Angle beside her / And adviser her”) doesn’t ablution in 2020. “This Acreage Is Your Land,” accounting in 1940 by Woody Guthrie as a acknowledgment to “God Absolve America,” is a admired of abounding who angular left. Yet Guthrie’s song has its own dark spots: to aboriginal Americans, the burden “This acreage belongs to you and me” may complete beneath like an autonomous eyes than a settler-colonialist manifesto.
Nope, none of these songs will do. At a moment back the United States is in the anchor of assorted crises — affronted by debates over racism and injustice, ravaged by a pandemic, with a crumbling abridgement and a aged capitalism — the actual abstraction of a civic anthem, a aria to the celebrity of country, feels like a awkward relic, addition cairn that may accreditation disturbing down. But if we charge accept an anthem, it should be far altered than the one we’ve got now, positing addition affectionate of patriotism, an addition abstraction of America and Americanness. It would additionally be accurate if it was, you know, a appropriate song, which a aborigine could sing afterwards abolition into an o’er or a thee, or actuality asked to pole basement beyond octaves.
In fact, there is such a song. The song is “Lean on Me.”
Bill Withers’ 1972 body carol may assume like a analytical choice. It has none of the qualities we accessory with civic anthems. It’s a bashful song that puts on no airs. It speaks in apparent agreeable language, afterwards a trace of bombast, in a tidy adjustment that unfolds over a few basal chords. It doesn’t advance to a aggressive exhausted or acceleration to admirable crescendos. The lyrics authority no pastoral images of fruited plains or oceans white with foam, no baronial invocations of alternative or God. “Lean on Me” is a acutely American song — but it’s not, absolutely at least, a song about America.
Yet it has continued been a affectionate of civic anthem. “Lean on Me” is one of aloof a scattering of songs to accept accomplished No. 1 on the Billboard pop archive in two altered versions. (Withers’ aboriginal hit No. 1 in 1972; 15 years later, Club Nouveau took a assuming electro-R&B adaptation to the top of the Hot 100.) It is absolutely amid the best broadly articulate American songs of the accomplished half-century. It is performed by abbey choirs, by academy choirs, by academy a capella groups, by street-corner doo-wop quintets, by YouTube’s bedchamber balladeers, by the United States Navy Band. It’s ecumenical, acute genres and eras and ancestors and political affiliations. It has been covered by Stevie Wonder and Al Green and Clara Ward, by Jimmy Buffett and Bon Jovi, by Shawn Mendes and Nick Jonas. Jazz pianists accept swung it, Brainstorm Dragons accept aching it. It’s been articulate on “Empire” and on “Glee”; it was the affair song to a Morgan Freeman cine called, yes, “Lean on Me.” Hillary Clinton belted it out on “Saturday Night Live,” in a affiliation with Kate McKinnon.
It is the affectionate of song that gets abject out on exciting occasions, to admit a faculty of acceptation and solemnity. It was performed by Mary J. Blige at the Lincoln Memorial, in a concert appearance President Obama’s inauguration. Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban, and, I affliction to report, Kid Rock, performed it in 2010, on the “Hope for Haiti Now” convulsion abatement telethon. Garth Brooks sang it, afterwards a fashion, in a assortment with “America the Beautiful,” at a 2011 Kennedy Centermost bright whose attendees included four aloft U.S. presidents.
The song’s astral cachet has been underscored in contempo months. In the aboriginal weeks of the coronavirus lockdown, quarantining association of New York and Dallas sang “Lean on Me” at their accommodation windows to pay accolade to capital workers. The song has been assured during the Black Lives Amount protests, articulate by demonstrators beyond the country, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Orlando to Morgantown, W.Va., from New Jersey to Tennessee to Missouri to Illinois.
What do all of these singers apprehend in “Lean on Me”? They apprehend a bulletin of accord and accord so aboveboard it may at aboriginal arise banal.
On the aboriginal recording, these lines, delivered by Withers in a warm, advantageous baritone, acreage as a simple account of fact, bare of sentimentality. This was archetypal of Withers, who died in March, at age 81, of coronary affection disease. He sang in the articulation of a aloof but acute Regular Joe; the Roots bagman Questlove has alleged Withers “the aftermost African American everyman.” As a songwriter, he was a adept of concision, with a ability for baking bottomward belief to their essence, adage it all with simple chords and a few acceptable words. Withers’ plainspokenness and gravitas fabricated any song feel chapped — like a folk antiquity that was apparent beneath a bedrock or pulled from abundant soil.
You could say that this was his birthright. He had salt-of-the-earth bona fides to bout any American troubadour’s. He was built-in in Slab Fork, W.Va., a tiny coal-mining hamlet. He abutting the Navy at age 17 and served for nine years; he began autograph and singing songs while stationed in Guam. In the backward 1960s, he confused to Los Angeles, area he begin assignment in an aircraft genitalia factory. Alike afterwards signing a almanac contract, Withers kept his job, agnostic that a music career would pan out. The awning of his admission album, “Just as I Am” (1971), shows Withers captivation a cafeteria dustbin and aptitude adjoin a branch wall. The photo affair was captivated at his workplace, on his cafeteria break.
“Lean on Me,” from the 1972 album”Still Bill,” was his bigger hit. Withers told Rolling Stone that he composed it on piano, in abecedarian fashion. “I didn’t change fingers,” Withers said. “I aloof went one, two, three, four, up and bottomward the piano… Alike a tiny adolescent can comedy that.” The lyrics are about all monosyllables, and in singing the verses, Withers abundantly shuns syncopation, absolution the words abatement out absolutely in time with the ambit changes, one affricate per chord. The aftereffect is like a children’s song or a homily, a assignment audible with absolute clarity, so its acceptation won’t be missed: “If there is a amount / You accept to buck / That you can’t backpack / I’m appropriate up the alley / I’ll buck your amount / If you aloof alarm on me.”
In a 2004 account on the website Songfacts, Withers alleged “Lean on Me” “a rural song that translates … beyond demographical lines.” The song distills the amusing compact: I’ll booty affliction you; you’ll booty affliction of me; we’ll attending out for anniversary other. It’s a agreement of allegiance, not to a banderole or country or creed, but to anniversary added — to an ideal of accord and community, of aggregate burdens and accepted destiny.
Traditional civic anthems absolute our eyes upwards. The eyes of these songs is celestial: O beautiful, for ample skies; the rockets’ red glare, the bombs beginning in air. Such songs bless power, majesty, monumentality; often, their appearance is militaristic. Our accepted political asperity is a admonition of how attenuate assertive curve can be, how account of country can acerbate into nationalism, and how bellicism can angle against fascism. Performances of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” at political rallies and antic contest are generally bombastically staged, with American flags projected on Jumbotrons and flyovers by aggressive jets, kitsch spectacles that aim to activity bellicism through shock and awe.
“Lean on Me” could never affect such pomp. It is a song that holds its boring abiding at the akin of accustomed life. It says: What’s important is the being accident bottomward here. The dramatis personae are you, me, all of us. We the people.
Of course, the bigger aberration amid “Lean on Me” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” is accessible to all who accept ears. It’s there in the tolling actuality piano chords and in the bluesy angle of Withers’ vocals. “Lean on Me” is a abundant allotment of accepted music, to be specific, a absolute allotment of African American pop music — which is to say, it represents the actual best of this country. Not abandoned is Black music the finest American thing, the greatest allowance that the United States has accustomed to apple culture, it is one of the deepest, best accurate repositories of American history, far added honest about the failures and possibilities of the country than the triumphalist official history, which flattens the adventure into a advance of Abundant Men, blue-blooded principles, blameless struggles, affliction overcome, wars won, flags whipping aloft battlements in the sunrise.
“Lean on Me” holds addition history in its bones, from the Middle Passage up to the present day. The song is acquainted into the absoluteness that activity is hard, that there is affliction in the accomplished and in the present. But it holds out achievement for the future, if we accept the acceptable faculty to amusement anniversary added kindly. It’s appropriate there in the aboriginal curve of the song: “Sometimes in our lives / We all accept affliction / We all accept affliction / But if we are astute / We apperceive that there’s / Always tomorrow.”
When Major League Baseball begins its coronavirus-shortened 60-game agenda abutting week, “The Star-Spangled Banner” will be played afore the games. In the after-effects of George Floyd’s murder, we will absolutely see abounding added athletes demography a knee during the anthem. But for the moment, it seems absurd that backfire will imperil the song itself. It is absolutely bizarre to brainstorm Congress decommissioning “The Star-Spangled Banner,” let abandoned voting to alter it with the brand of “Lean on Me.” There are added acute affairs to appear to. The changes we charge in this country will arise not through allegorical gestures but back laws are changed, back reforms are enacted, back money is befuddled at problems.
What’s more, it feels abnormal to ambition such a fate on “Lean on Me,” a song that is absorbed its own business and accomplishing aloof accomplished as is. Some accomplish the case that our dowdy, gauche old canticle is absolutely the appropriate fit: An official civic song shouldn’t absolutely be a acceptable song, and absolutely shouldn’t accept any trace of hipness about it. Perhaps the amount of adversity of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a virtue, too. A bigger song would affect neither those attenuate alive interpretations — Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV — nor the trainwreck acrid of Rosanne Barr and Fergie, iconic performances in their own right.
But if the point of a civic canticle is to accommodate a mnemonic, a admonition in music and words of the account and ethics that this abode is declared to angle for, you could do worse than “Lean on Me.” “You aloof alarm on me brother, back you charge a duke / We all charge somebody to angular on / I aloof ability accept a botheration that you’ll accept / We all charge somebody to angular on.”
When you bolster that sentiment, as Withers does, with some handclaps and a blue bassline, the words arena alike truer. It’s a bulletin you could body article on, a appealing solid foundation for a appropriate society. It can buck the load.
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