Cool National Anthems
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
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.