Rants and Raves

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Cool National Anthems

"Let me write a country's songs, and I care not who writes its laws."

There is an experiment I'd really like to try sometime, if I could only establish the initial conditions. Trouble is, I don't know where I could find a group of people who had never heard of the American Civil War, or if they had, didn't know who won.

The experiment is this, listen to Dixie, Bonnie Blue Flag and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Now tell me, if you didn't know who had won that war, could you have guessed from listening to their songs?

Dixie is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "a mighty fine tune". Bonnie Blue Flag is less well known but a very rousing song, the kind you can imagine riding jauntily down the road on a cavalry charger to. But The Battle Hymn of the Republic is a song for men marching steadily with terrible resolve.

Part of the thrust of my academic studies in Mass Communication is propaganda. (For those who've just flinched, look it up in the dictionary. I mean propaganda in the morally neutral sense of the word, as in to 'propagate' ideas.) One of the things I've noticed from my readings is that there doesn't seem to be any research on the effect of music, song and poetry beyond noting that these are effective tools of propaganda.

What is it about a song that moves men, that inspires them to risk losing their lives for something worth more than their lives? What kind of song makes people feel like a united people when they sing it together?

I can think of countries that have really rousing national anthems. The US does, especially when you consider the verses nobody knows anymore because they've been, if not suppressed, then definitely swept under the rug*.

And where is that band who so dauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps pollution!
No refuge could save, the tyrant and slave
From the terror of flight, and the gloom of the grave.
And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

During the Vietnam War, I got a bad taste from our National Anthem that lasted for years. The anti-American Left who hijacked the peace movement were burning the flag and pro-administration scoundrels were wrapping themselves in it. Then some years later, I was helping a couple of Chinese students defect in the bloody aftermath of Tien An Min Square.

One day I stopped by campus to take in a demonstration by the Chinese Students Association which was topped off by them singing the Star Spangled Banner. They were, in a word, awful. It's a difficult song to sing at best**, and they were painfully off key - then in the middle of it I realized I was crying.

Poland has a pretty cool national anthem, the Mazurka Dombrowskiego (Dombrowski's Mazurka).

Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła
kiedy my żyjemy
co nam obca przemoc wzięła
szablą odbierzemy.

Marsz, marsz Dąbrowski
z ziemi włoskiej do Polski
Za Twoim przewodem
złączym się z narodem.

Poland is not dead yet,
While yet we live
What foreign force has taken
We will reclaim with the sword.

March, march Dombrowski!
From the Italian lands to Poland
Under your guide
We will unite with the nation

Sung by a massed male chorus it's very inspiring.

One is tempted to theorize that you could tell something about the martial valor of a nation from their national anthem. But then you have to consider that France has La Marseillaise and England has God Save the Queen. You'd like to think that you could tell something about a nation's love for freedom from their anthem, but the Hymn of the Soviet Union is a great tune too. Nonetheless, I'm glad we've got The Star Spangled Banner instead of say, Oh Canada!

* Isaac Asimov once wrote a hilarious short story about a man trying to catch out a German agent during WWII. He proposed a word association test as a game, and slipped in "terror of flight". The suspect immediately responded "gloom of the grave." He thus revealed himself as a carefully trained spy because no native American knows all the verses of The Star Spangled Banner!

** The Star Spangled Banner is of course, a poem that was set to music later. The tune was formerly an English drinking song called To Anacreon in Heaven. It has a range that almost no one can get through without their voice cracking, which probably doesn't matter for a drinking song. I've sometimes wondered if there isn't a point in that. It doesn't work unless we sing it together.


  • At 1:51 PM, Blogger dchamil said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 1:53 PM, Blogger dchamil said…

    Please tell me who wrote, "Let me write a country's songs, and I care not who writes its laws."

  • At 3:23 PM, Blogger Canker said…

    You might also consider poor Australia. I cannot bring myself to reproduce any of its national anthem-but it is truly cringe-making

  • At 7:07 PM, Blogger Metatron said…

    Putting aside it's symbolism, I thought tha the soviet anthem has a realy great tune and I've heard that It's really easy to sing too.

  • At 7:07 PM, Blogger Metatron said…

    Putting aside it's symbolism, I thought tha the soviet anthem has a realy great tune and I've heard that It's really easy to sing too.

  • At 10:10 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    I'm sorry, I checked out several quotation sites and couldn't find who originated that quote. I think I've heard it attributed before, but don't remember.

    I did find that Mark Twain had paraphrased it, "Let me make a country's superstitions and I don't care who writes its laws, or its songs either" so its at least that old.

    I thought Australia missed a bet by not going with good old Waltzing Matilda.

  • At 10:12 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    P.S. Another good quote in that genre was, "One man with a dream, at pleasure, shall go forth and conquer a crown. And three with a new song's measure, can trample an empire down."

    I remember that one from a book by Mack Reynolds, Trample an Empire Down, I think it was called and he may have attributed it.

  • At 11:40 PM, Blogger Eduardo said…

    The original quote may have been..."I knew a very wise man so much of Sir Christophers sentiment, that he believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation."

    So sayeth Andrew Fletcher.

  • At 5:47 AM, Blogger Geoff said…

    As a Canadian, I have to say that O Canada always felt like a particularly lame anthem to me. It doesn't feel like an anthem, it feels like a song that schoolchildren sing. We ought to just replace it with a Stan Rogers song. I've long thought "Northwest Passage" to be suitably anthemic.

  • At 7:15 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    However, Canda does have Gordon Lightfoot's 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy' the most inspiring hymn to civilization and industrialization ever - though that's not a long list...

  • At 2:09 PM, Blogger gun-totin-wacko said…

    Cool post. I've always been into the folk music of a country, and what it means. Listen to "Scotland the Brave" for instance, and as a friend of mine once put it "no matter what nationality you are, it makes you want to go out and beat up an Englishman." Ireland and Scotland have some of the best songs, all intended to glorify defeat or inspire the natives to victory.

  • At 10:27 AM, Blogger shibu said…

    "Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws." was written by ANDREW FLETCHER

  • At 10:03 PM, Blogger Cailynain said…

    I've been thinking about this topic so much recently. Music's power is in the ability to arouse emotional response. I've been reading on religion lately and recall a related finding that states that successful religions were able to utilize music, symbolism, art, etc. to capture the imagination and emotions of the herd. I think Hallmark commercials do the same g.d. thing.


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