Sunday, September 26, 2004

Land of the Brave and Free

While talking about national anthems the other day, I mentioned -- and I know I'm not the only one to point this out -- that several countries have unofficial national anthems that are probably more popular than their official ones. "God Bless America," of course, is where Americans turn when they need a national anthem with actual singable lyrics (none of that "the bombs burting in air" stuff), though Berlin always opposed the idea of its becoming the official anthem. And England's unoffical anthem, "Rule Britannia" by Thomas Arne and James Thomson, is much more rousing and inspiring than "God Save the Queen." The "unofficial" anthems tend to supply something that the official one doesn't have. So "God Bless America" makes up for the obliqueness of "Star-Spangled Banner" (which doesn't actually say anything nice about the country until the last line of the refrain) with direct, simple expression: land that I love, my home sweet home. And though "God Save the Queen/King" was introduced almost at the same time as "Rule Britannia," the latter now almost seems like it's making up for something that the former doesn't have; instead of a solemn prayer for God to bless England, "Rule Britannia" is a joyous celebration of all the blessings England already has, and how much cooler she is than "The nations not so blessed as thee." That's why the official anthems can't and shouldn't be supplanted by the alterna-anthems: the songs compliment each other.

Anyway, I don't know whether other countries have alterna-anthems; France, perhaps, doesn't need one, because La Marseillaise fulfils both jobs of a national anthem: it's a rousing military song and an expression of hope that the country will fulfil its destiny. Also, Casablanca pretty much established it as the coolest national anthem. I've always thought of "The Volga Boatman Song" as Russia's anthem, but I doubt that the Russians would agree.

As for Canada, our current national anthem, like so much else about us, comes off as a bland attempt to evade expressing any kind of cultural identity; both in the original French and in the English translation, it says very little about us except our country's name. At least "God Save the Queen," being a British anthem whose tune is also used by the Americans, sort of says something about English Canada's identity as an Anglo-American hybrid (off-topic, but while I used to think that Canada had lost a lot by denying its English heritage, I've decided that Israel is the country that lost the most on that score: in trying to make itself less English, Israel wound up saddled with a new identity in the eyes of the world, as a de facto American colony). Maybe we need an Irving Berlin to write a song that does something different from our official anthem, but the problem is, I'm not sure exactly what it is that our official anthem actually does.

1 comment:

Rachel Newstead said...

Strange you didn't mention "The Maple Leaf Forever," which I personally like better than Canada's official anthem, "O Canada."