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Oh Say, Can You See?

As the World Cup has become part of our daily routine, I have been pondering the subject of national anthems. Prior to each match, the players and coaches line up with their youth football companions, the recording of their country’s national anthem is played, and they are joined by their fans in singing along (or not).

Some anthems are sung with passionate enthusiasm, some with indifference, and some not at all. The Welsh are probably the most enthusiastic singers with every man, woman, and child lifting their voices in native Welsh harmony. The Iranian team chose not to sing as a silent protest for their government’s violent reaction to women’s rights marches this year. The Spanish team took an unfair hit for not singing their anthem. Their anthem is a march with (wait for it) no words. In fairness, some were definitely humming along.

Some tunes are iconic and familiar to all. I would put the Star-Spangled Banner, God Save the Queen King, Oh Canada, La Marseillaise, and Haydn’s Deutschland Uber Alles in that category. When Joseph Haydn writes your song, it sticks around.

As to my native land’s pregame singing habits, one embarrassing story stands out in my mind. It was my Welsh cousin’s second visit to the United States, and we decided he needed to go to an Orioles baseball game at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. Prior to the game, we all rose, the recording of our National Anthem blared out while 20,000 fans stood and silently shifted their weight from one foot to the other. When the song was over and the cheer went up, my cousin looked at me and said, “You don’t sing your national anthem.”

It was not presented as a casual observation. It wasn’t delivered like, “my, you Americans drive your cars on the other side of the road” or “you pick up your fork with you right hand and never deploy the knife when consuming peas.” The tone of delivery was more like, “why don’t you ever send your mother a birthday card?” It implied moral judgement, was very embarrassing, and since we had just stood through a two-minute example, pretty hard to deny. “I know, and I don’t know why,” was my lame response.

I immediately scratched the next day’s visit to Ft. McHenry off the list. Our silence would have been even harder to explain with the added fact that the national song had been written by Francis Scott Key about a mile and a half from Baltimore Memorial Stadium. Awkward.

In defense of my native land and the Inner Harbor, I have proudly stood with 71,000 of my fellow Americans and sung our National Anthem to the top of my lungs. It was the annual Army Navy Football Game in 2014 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Given the fact that the players and a decided majority of the fans had signed a contract to defend the “land of the free and the home of the brave”, it wasn’t an accident that they sang every word like they meant it. The rest of us who had only defended Williamsburg, VA in Army ROTC were swept up in the moment and through our tears joined the mighty chorus. Powerful.

Some fun national anthem facts.

Japan has the distinction of the both the shortest and the oldest lyrics. Based on a single verse of waka, classic Japanese poetry, it was written in 794.

Wilhelmus, the anthem of the Netherlands boasts the oldest tune, composed in the 16th century. The lyrics are an acrostic, meaning the first letter of each of the 15 (yes 15) verses spells something of meaning, in this case the name of a hero of the Dutch revolt against Spain.

China has recently banned the singing of their national anthem. It is being used as a song of revolt against the government’s drastic zero COVID restrictions on freedom of movement. The words, “rise up, rise up” from the anthem have become a provocative chant for the protesters.

Finally, did you know that some countries do not have a national anthem? Some don’t even have a flag. I won’t name names here so as not to call out the homeland of some dear friends. But I do have an offering to fix the problem.

Last night I wrote a national anthem for any nation in need of one. It goes like this:

Oh, sons of Garibaldi and Maidens of Pike,

We grow and we harvest the foods you don’t like

We’ve laid down our weapons in war after war,

Our Crown and our Scepter?

Ain’t got them no more.

So lift up a glass, keep your eye on the ball,

As our fair fatherland hopes these words you’ll recall.

Our team of swift booters born all over the globe,

Need a choir director with the patience of Job.

To teach them the tune and all of the words,

To our National Song, “May We March Like the Birds!”


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