By ANNE DONNELL
With the Fourth of July coming up I thought you might want to tell some history about patriotic songs and poems. I’d appreciate this. -Local Patriot This beautiful country, whose richness of resources in place and in people is truly unparalleled, has often inspired compositions of tribute. Nowadays we’ve fondly chosen a few as outstanding, though a generation or more back would name many more (like “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean”). The response to Viet Nam and the keen interest in “progressive ideas” and science propelled an already changing culture to push away the unabashed patriotism so marked during World War II. But not permanently. Perhaps a harkening toward the “good old days” is promoting a new patriotism, one that is unashamed of acknowledging what is good, even great in the present in the past.
And it is good and great, no matter the fear of economic “downturns,” of war, of disease, of crime, of natural disaster. All familiar challenges, familiar through the years to a nation born as an underdog after a revolutionary war few thought winnable. And during a conflict less than a century later between the states of this new union. And during the twentieth century where events brought unspeakable horror in war around the globe and atomic weaponry. And now during the twenty-first century when national and international voices cry disparagingly of the United States of America and her place in the world, her survival.
Preservation of freedom, the hallmark of our survival, is key to us. When that seemed threatened on September 11, 2001, we responded strongly. In that response was a determined display of Old Glory, on houses and businesses and car tags. Patriotism.
Our nation’s leaders sang “God Bless America,” written by Irving Berlin in 1918, revised in 1938. Kate Smith made it a national hit. It has a beginning Berlin wrote, and Smith always used, but we don’t. “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea / Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free / Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.” Well, patriotism is currently faring better than religion in meaningful national discussion.
Out national anthem (since 1931) “The Star-Spangled Banner” came from "Defence of Fort McHenry", a poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. The poem was set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, written by John Stafford Smith, already well known in the United States. It’s hard to sing as the range is one and a half octaves. Although the song has four stanzas, only the first is usually sung. Doesn’t it sound magnificent during the Olympics when American medal winners take the stand?
The lyrics for “America the Beautiful” were written by Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929), an instructor at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, after a trip to the top of Pikes Peak, Colorado, in 1893. The poem was sung to different tunes, even “Auld Lang Syne,” but eventually (and permanently) attached to Samuel A. Ward’s “Materna,” composed in 1882. Miss Bates never indicated publicly which tune she preferred.
The lyrics for “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (for most of us the introduction to the poetic word ‘tis) were written in thirty minutes by Samuel Francis in 1831,while he was a student at the Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Massachusetts. The song was first performed in public on July 4, 1831, at a children's Independence Day celebration at Park Street Church in Boston. The tune is “God Save the King” (or Queen).
For poems I’ll list “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus which famously ends, “Give me your tired, your poor…” This is mounted on a plaque on an inner wall of the Statue of Liberty. There’s also “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman, a famous tribute to the diversity of American workers; and “I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes, a powerful statement about the possibilities of racial harmony in America.
I’ll end, an incomplete accounting certainly, with the famous short story by Stephen Vincent Benét, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” A retelling of the Faust legend (the Devil buys one’s soul in return for desired wealth and position) this story ends describing a visit to Daniel Webster’s grave. Webster had been the succesful defense attorney against Ol’ Scratch.
[Daniel Webster (1762-1852) famed American lawyer, orator, U. S. Senator, Secretary of State under three presidents.]
“Yes, Dan'l Webster's dead ----- or, at least, they buried him. But every time there's a thunderstorm around Marshfield, they say you can hear his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky. And they say that if you go to his grave and speak loud and clear, ‘Dan'l Webster ----- Dan'l Webster!’ the ground'll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake. And after a while you'll hear a deep voice saying, ‘Neighbor, how stands the Union?’ Then you better answer the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible, or he's liable to rear right out of the ground. At least, that's what I was told when I was a youngster.”
Happy Fourth of July; let the fireworks remind you of the “rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” Remember they “Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.” Long may it wave.