Saturday, August 13, 2005


Patriotic Knowledge & Expression

More of both, please

The National Anthem Project aims to reinvigorate the public's interest in our national anthem. (Link via Bookworm.) It's a good idea. Considering the national anthem is sung (or played) before major sporting events, I'm amazed at how many people I run across who don't know the lyrics. Unsurprisingly, given the state of education in this country, fewer still know anything about the history behind the song (e.g. that is has nothing to do with the Revolutionary War).

Something which saddens me more, however, is that so few Americans know much if anything about "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- not its lyrics, not its history, not even its name are well known. I must usually cite the first line whenever I ask someone about it. People are at least familiar with that, although many associate it with the South (how ironic!) in some way, particularly with college football teams from the region.

I was quite shocked at the reaction a number my friends had to my suggestion that that it replace or precede the national anthem at sporting events, particularly the very first MLB and NFL games after the September 11 attacks. They just didn't make the connection. A few were actually offended by the idea. As I see it, collective displays of patriotism should, at least occasionally, consist of more than just expressions of love for the country, or of dissent (ha ha). We should commemorate days of national significance, like Memorial Day and Veterans Day. And September 11 and December 7. (Perhaps May 8 and August 14 as well.) Singing America's fight song is a particularly appropriate way to do this. Especially to commemorate September 11, as it would serve as a patriotic reminder of the gravity of the situation in which we currently find ourselves.

(Hey Bill O and Matt O, do either of you remember which version of The Battle Hymn's fifth verse we were taught in grammar school? I certainly do. Vividly. And truthfully, I thought the fifth verse was the last verse as I don't recall being taught that sixth verse at all.)

Writing about this I'm reminded of my first trip downtown after the Sep 11 attacks. That Saturday, I went to meet a friend at his office in a building near East Wacker Drive, a double decked road on the south bank of the Chicago river which was undergoing reconsruction. Walking there from the LaSalle Street Station, I saw for the first time the concrete barricades surrounding many of the buildings. The Loop seemed unusually quiet, more like a Saturday in January than in September. It was all very depressing. But as I came nearer his building, I heard a sax playing 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' over and over. I thought this was pretty cool.

When my friend and I left his office about four hours later, I could hear the sax still playing it. Though we were in a hurry and he was utterly indifferent to the situation, I insisted we seek out the saxophonist, something which turned out to be unexpectedly difficult. We could hear the music over a block-wide area, but we just couldn't locate the source. I finally spotted the guy on a large mound of dirt right underneath the road, a support pier at his back. I'd never before (or since) seen a street musician in such an inaccessible spot. There was a reasonable amount of pedestrian traffic and the music could be heard across a wide area; possibly it could even be heard on the other side of the river. But I wondered how he expected anyone to get near enough to tip him. It wasn't until after we got on the el that I realized he wasn't interested in tips at all -- he had chosen that spot because its combination of location and acoustical properties projected maximum effect.

Upon realizing this, I felt a little ashamed of my cynicism. I've thought differently of street musicians ever since, though I have yet to tip one.


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