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Not My Anthem

The Star-Spangled Banner is freaking terrible.

There, I said it. And I stand by it.

In the words of Adam Tod Brown, “the American national anthem tells the inspiring story of a brave flag that survives a scary night by believing in itself”.

It’s difficult to sing.

It’s militaristic (an argument that has stretched back longer than you might think).

It’s got some ugly white supremacy undertones.

And it’s not even unique, being set to the tune of an old English drinking song, which Francis Scott Key had even put words to before.

But beyond those common criticisms, it’s just not American. That’s what I personally hate about the Banner. It doesn’t speak to me about anything that is particularly American. It’s the tale of a battle which could have happened at any time and any place since the invention of gunpowder. It’s a story of death and destruction and tragedy and bad blood between peoples and nation states, when what America should be IMVVHO is the antithesis of that. America shouldn’t be a piece of tattered cloth above a battleground. America should be represented by an image of industry and freedom and people from a wide variety of backgrounds coming together in peace and harmony to build something new and better. And our national anthem should reflect those ideals, even though, or perhaps especially because, they are not always perfectly enacted where the rubber hits the road. Our anthem should be a tribute to our dream for our country and not a paean to war.

Luckily for us, we already have the perfect song. It’s called City of New Orleans and I’m sure most people have heard it. If not, here’s a very famous rendition by Willie Nelson.

Willie Nelson – City Of New Orleans

At first blush, this may seem to be a song about a train, but it’s really so much more than that. It’s a song that’s about America itself, about the promise of America. It’s American in a way that the rocket’s red glare never could be.

Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
There are fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail

I especially like that little touch. The mail. In an age of instant communication, we sometimes forget how important something simple like carrying the mail cross-country was to the history of America, but from Postmaster Ben Franklin to the Pony Express, getting the mail through has been of critical import to our cohesiveness as a nation.

They’re all out on this southbound odyssey
And the train pulls out of Kankakee
Rolls past the houses, farms, and fields
Passing towns that have no names
And freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards full of rusted automobiles

Houses, farms, fields, towns. Not a besieged fort surrounded by bombs bursting in air. It’s a superior image, one that tells so much more about what America is than generic warlike imagery. And it’s a multicultural America, not perfectly perhaps, but it is multicultural, people of different ethnicities living side by side and working together.

And besides, what’s more American than automobiles?  Except for maybe trains?

Singin’ Good Morning, America, how are you?
Don’t you know me, I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
And I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.

It’s a greeting to America, all of America, not this side or that side or red or blue or flyover country vs. cities, but all of us Americans. The train is calling out its greeting to you and to me.

And 500 miles – doesn’t it capture the size and scope of America? The vastness of it? And yet somehow, some way, we’re a unit, a people. It’s meaningful that we can be that. Somehow, despite how far apart we all are, we are brought together via this network of train tracks and roads and a shared culture and set of beliefs that unifies us.

And I was dealing cards with the old men in the club car
A penny a point, ain’t no one keeping score
Won’t you pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
You can feel the wheels grumbling through the floor

Even our shared vices bring us together. It’s something that really does cut across regional and cultural lines – the idea that we could sit down together as individuals and play cards and drink together and shoot the breeze and it’s so much more American than bonding over national identities.

And the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers
They ride their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel
And mothers with their babes asleep
Go rockin to the gentle beat
Just the rhythm of the rails is all they dream

The sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers – it’s an egalitarian, multicultural vision of America. And their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel? It belongs to ALL their fathers, not one more than another. Those brave, strong, hardworking men of different ethnicities, heritages, religions who came together to build the railway system of the United States, the men who laid the rails and built the trains and ran/run them – the legacy belongs to all of them.

And mothers and babies. So many anthems are male-centric, it’s touching to me that tucked away in the heart of this masculine song is a mention of motherhood and children. There is not a woman or child to be found basking in the dawn’s early light. But there is on the City of New Orleans. Just a soft moment that speaks to the reason why men sacrifice so much and work so hard, so that mothers and their children can sleep safely, rocking away in the train.

Nighttime on the City of New Orleans
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
It’s halfway home and we’ll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness rolling to the sea
And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
The old steel rails, it ain’t heard the news
The conductor sings that song again
Passengers will please refrain
This train has got the disappearing railroad blues

This stanza illustrates something about America. It changes. What it was once, it isn’t now, and while we may have nostalgia and feel bittersweet sentiment over it all, it’s the march of progress. America is not a glorious battle or a crystallized moment in time, it’s almost more a process than a nation. While the railroads once were king, they’re fading away to make room for something new. Self-driving trucks, maybe, or something. But America will carry on and still be America. We shouldn’t forget our heritage, shouldn’t turn our backs on the ways of life that brought us here but nor should we try to preserve things forever. We should acknowledge and appreciate the old even as we make way for the new.

Just singing, good night, America, how are you?
Saying don’t you know me, I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
And I’ll be gone a long long time before the day is done

It’s a great song, ok? Whether you agree that it should be the national anthem or not, I think most would agree it’s a pretty good song. But it’s the story behind the song is what truly elevates City of New Orleans to being the perfect representation of what I believe, in my heart, to be America.

Steve Goodman, the man who wrote City of New Orleans, was born in Chicago in 1948. He graduated from the same high school, in the same class as Hillary Clinton. He was Jewish and started singing as a member of the junior choir at his temple. When he was 20 years old, he found out he had terminal leukemia and decided to devote the rest of his life to music. He was dying his entire adult life, actually, literally dying, little by little. His entire musical career was spent with the specter of death over his head. And his response to that was to nickname himself “Cool Hand Leuk” and keep right on singing until he died at the age of 36.

Goodman came of age at a point in time in which folk music was probably at its pinnacle of popularity. While Goodman had met and worked with famous names like Kris Kristofferson and John Prine, his big break came when he ran into Arlo Guthrie at a bar and asked if he could play a song for him. Guthrie agreed with one condition – Goodman had to buy him a beer and could only play for as long as it took Guthrie to drink it. Goodman played City of New Orleans while Guthrie guzzled, and the rest is history.

Arlo Guthrie – City of New Orleans

I find the story of Steve Goodman and City of New Orleans to be so much more inspiring and American than a dude in a fort in a war putting an old drinking song to words (or maybe he was in a boat or something, looking at the fort, I can’t remember exactly). It has everything that is good and right about America. Courage in the face of overwhelming odds, folk music, beer, and a melting pot of peoples living in friendship with each other. It has Arlo Guthrie. It has Hillary, for whatever that’s worth. And it even has baseball, because Steve Goodman was a huge Chicago Cubs fan and actually wrote the song Go Cubs Go which is the official Cubs victory song and my grandma loved the Cubs so shut up, they won eventually and I just know that Grandma and Steve Goodman were hugging and jumping up and down in heaven when they did. I’m sure we could find an apple pie and an eagle in Steve Goodman’s life story if we looked hard enough. It’s awesome, it’s just an awesome story about an awesome guy who wrote an awesome song that I really love.

Seriously, it’s so much better than that bullshittery about bombs and death.

And here’s the man himself with the best version of all.

Steve Goodman – City Of New Orleans

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Kristin is huge geek, a libertarian, and a mother of 4 sons and a daughter. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor.

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82 thoughts on “Not My Anthem

  1. I give you points for going with City of New Orleans. That was unexpected. That being said, I think that the tune to our national anthem being an 18th century drinking song it totally awesome! And yes, it is difficult to sing. So what? Mostly, it isn’t banal, as are so many national anthems. The final question of the first verse also is entirely apt. Not wondering about whether the flag is still flying, but over what?

    That being said, there is much room to critique it as poetry. And as English. Here is one of my favorite parlor games: what, in the first verse, is the grammatical object (if any) of the verb “watched”? It is entirely likely that you think the answer is obvious. So do the people on either side of you. But not necessarily with the same answer.


  2. City of New Orleans has the downside in being about railroads. Traveling by train is irrelevant to nearly all modern Americans and would seem hopelessly quaint. Plus many Americans seem politically opposed to mass transportation except airplanes. The new national anthem should be “This land is your land, this land is my line.” It captures the scope of the United States, its easy to sing, and its egalitarian.


  3. I was also surprised and pleased at your choice of City of New Orleans, which is a fantastic song, and one which would make a pretty good anthem.

    But I’m mostly posting because I actually found myself riding on the City of New Orleans about a month ago. I had to go from Urbana to Chicago, and when I got on the train, I realized I was on the train from the song. I had no idea it was still running.


  4. It’s a story of death and destruction and tragedy and bad blood between peoples and nation states, when what America should be IMVVHO is the antithesis of that. America shouldn’t be a piece of tattered cloth above a battleground. America should be represented by an image of industry and freedom and people from a wide variety of backgrounds coming together in peace and harmony to build something new and better. And our national anthem should reflect those ideals, even though, or perhaps especially because, they are not always perfectly enacted where the rubber hits the road. Our anthem should be a tribute to our dream for our country and not a paean to war.

    Lemme ask you something: When does the National Anthem tend to get sung?

    I’ll answer my rhetorical question. It gets sung right before a major (or, heck, a minor) sporting event… which is, you guessed it, a sublimation of war. Our anthem being a paean to war is doing its job quite well in 99% of the situations in which it is sung.

    But, besides that, how many National Anthems are actually good?

    There’s the Soviet National Anthem… and maybe “God Save The Queen”…

    What else is there?

    If the majority of National Anthems aren’t good, I think that they’re something else going on here.


    • France is a classic*, Japan is very good & has a unique vibe, and check out the Hungarian one (prompted from the first link).

      The worst national anthems are the ones that sound like rehashed Napoleonic era marching songs. Though that’s not what the USA’s is.

      *perhaps *the* classic – is it the first one? The French Revolution essentially invented nationalism


    • HaTikvah is a very good national anthem. Naturally, I agree politically with the sentiments expressed in HaTikvah but even without that it is a good national anthem. It has a very haunting melody as opposed to the more grandiose militaristic national anthems or the fun sing along ones. That makes it kind of unique. Its a song of hope for an oppressed and despised people. There is a clip available on youtube of just liberated Holocaust singing HaTikvah while standing at the barbed wire fences that surrounded the camps. Anybody who isn’t moved by this can be safely called an anti-Semite.

      The man who wrote the lyrics for HaTikvah, Naphtali Imber, was also very much a character. He was a long haired alcoholic Jewish poet who travelled the globe. He pretended to be a prophet and made predictions of the future. One was that Californian wines would be considered some of the best in the world. The other was that the ultra-liberal state of Kansas, yes really, would revolt against a conservative federal government, yes really. Mr. Imber was kicked out of two Zionist Congresses for his drunken frat boy antics but he still wrote the lyrics to Israel’s national anthem.


      • I agree. HaTikvah is a great anthem. Lovely and singable.

        I did not know the history of the man who wrote the lyrics. Thank you for sharing that – quite a character indeed.


    • I’ll reluctantly bring up O’Canada, but it simply isn’t a particularly good song. Frankly the lyrics sound a bit like it was written in a committee and the tune is pretty meh. It’s notable only in that it’s generally anodyne and inoffensive.


          • *cough* That’s a fair description of the Anglophone translation, not so much of the Francophone version.

            Here’s Wiki’s not horrible anglo translation of the actual french (I fixed like 3 words b/c they weren’t literal enough):

            O Canada!
            Land of our ancestors
            Glorious deeds circle your brow
            For your arm knows how to wield the sword
            Your arm knows how to carry the cross;
            Your history is an epic
            Of brilliant deeds
            And your valour steeped in faith
            Will protect our homes and our rights,
            Will protect our homes and our rights.

            Under the eye of God, near the giant river,
            The Canadian grows hoping.
            He was born of a proud race,
            Blessed was his cradle.
            Heaven has noted his career
            In this new world.
            Always guided by its light,
            He will keep the honour of his flag,
            He will keep the honour of his flag.

            From his patron, the precursor of the true God,
            He wears the halo of fire on his brow.
            Enemy of tyranny
            But full of loyalty,
            He wants to keep in harmony,
            His proud freedom;
            And by the effort of his genius,
            Set on our ground the truth,
            Set on our ground the truth.

            Sacred love of the throne and the altar,
            Fill our hearts with your immortal breath!
            Among the stranger races,
            Our guide is the law:
            Let us know how to be a people of brothers,
            Under the yoke of faith.
            And repeat, like our fathers,
            The battle cry: “For Christ and King!”
            The battle cry: “For Christ and King!”

            I actually sung 1st-3rd verses regularly in school, in French immersion in PEI in the 80s – en francais bien sur. We left out the 4th, I think it was a bit TOO religious for 1980s folks – but they were fine with 1st through 3rd.

            It gives you a different perspective, for sure.


            • The French version is very Quebec. The only way to make it more Quebec is more explicit references to Catholicism besides “For Christ” and to make sure that people knew that the Kings were the House of Bourbon. Plus something about hunting beavers for fur.


              • In French it’s more Quebec b/c (besides being in French, obvs) it uses words like “fleurons” and “berceau” whose literal translations don’t have the same rhetorical flourish in English that they do in French. The former links up to the fleur de lis. The latter links up (actually I suspect has been deliberately *embraced* by, in terms of chronology) the Quebec nationalist party love of distinguishing between uh, “cradle Quebecers” and everyone else (which “everyone else” sometimes includes people who are, literally, born there – because some nationalist Quebecers are super-racist and anti-Semitic). Though both those terms also make reference to the revanche des berceaux – “revenge of the cradles” – which is a very Catholic thing in that French colonists were urged (in the 18th century) to make as many babies as possible in order to defeat the English by sheer numbers. (http://www.economist.com/node/12891035)

                So, uh, definitely more illustrative of Canada’s actual, quite tattered and complicated history, than the official English version.


                • A reference to the fleur de lis gets the Bourbons in them anthem. I can easily imagine a bunch of Anglophone Canadian civil servants getting their hands on a rough translation of the French lyrics and thinking about how to make the stirring song more multicultural even if they made it bland.

                  That’s the big issue with national anthems in a liberal pluralistic democracy. The best national anthems are rousing hymns or semi-mournful but tend to be a very particularistic and at least somewhat illiberal in their lyrics. Pluralistic national anthems sound like a committee wrote them with the goal to include everybody and annoy nobody. They don’t really inspire.


            • That is exactly why it is perfectly suited to be Canada’s national anthem.

              – Decent but not stellar music, written by a Canadian composer who spent much of his professional life in the USA because that’s where the money was. Still counts as CanCon.

              – Has official lyrics in French and English, which don’t match up very well.

              – French lyrics are surprising to those who are only familiar with the English.

              – English lyrics are dull as dishwater.

              Alternately, someone could translate “Summer of ’69” into French, but make it inexplicably about drugs and corruption in the construction industry or something.


              • Oh, I wasn’t saying the French lyrics made it less appropriate. If anything, much more so, as you detail so well.

                It’s just always weird for me, having grown up more familiar with the French than the English, to hear fellow Anglos talking about how milquetoast it is … “What? It’s bloody, threatening, divine-right-esque, and extremely nationalist…. oh, wait, ENGLISH lyrics, right, okay.”


  5. A few decades ago there was a movement to replace Australia’s generically patriotic anthem with Waltzing Matilda. Which would have been awesome, for silmilar reasons to what Kristin wrote here.


    • Waltzing Matilda would have been an outstanding national anthem for Australia. Its a popular poem, it gets the Australian national character as they see themselves just right, and its a fun song. The down side is the same as the City of New Orleans, Waltzing Matilda is archaic and doesn’t really reflect Australia as most Australians know it. The train is no longer part of American life and being a swagman in the Bush is not part of Australian life. New Australians whose ancestors arrived after World War II have no particular romantic memory of the Bush besides what is forced into them.


    • From 2003… before shade was invented… here’s how the Independent covered the ban:

      The ballad about a sheep thief who drowns in a pond embodies the Australian national spirit. Hence the chorus of outrage greeting news yesterday that the home crowd could be banned from singing “Waltzing Matilda” at the Rugby World Cup in Australia later this year.


  6. The UN’s anthem should either be Its a Small World After All, International Brotherhood Week by Tom Lehrer, or the International depending on your politics and state of cynicism.


      • We went every couple of years when I was a kid. My recollection of the It’s a Small World ride is that its role in the ecosystem was in the heat of the afternoon to sit down on a calm ride with water to cool you down. The actual content of the ride was incidental. The train around the park also was pretty good for this, plus dinosaurs!


            • It’s a Small World is like Nickelback or Justin Bieber – you have to have more courage to admit that you like it than that you don’t.

              I am very very brave so will admit that I unabashedly, unapologetically love it. As a child I insisted on going on it again and again. My parents, being young and dumb and full of energy, obliged me. It was kind of a family joke about how annoying it was for them to have to go on it so many times in a row before I was finally sated.

              Then I went on it again as an adult with my father and two oldest sons and by the end I was surprised to find my dad in tears. He was choked up by the memory of that dumb ride and how much I liked it as a kid. So I guess the things that annoy you as a parent sometimes end up being really good memories in the end.


          • True story: I was at Disneyland once and saw a couple patiently explaining to their crestfallen young child right outside of the exit that “It’s A Small World” is a very special ride and so there’s a rule that kids can only go on it once a day, so that all of the kids who come to Disneyland have a chance to enjoy it, and don’t you want other kids here to get to do that too?

            Each of them were struggling to keep straight faces while the other was saying it. When that child is older, there might be some lingering resentment of this bit of parental deception.


            • I don’t understand parents who make Disneyland about themselves.

              Your story is the diet coke version.* But still. You just paid huge amounts of money to go somewhere that your kids will remember fondly for a long time. Let them do their thing, even if it isn’t your thing. Because that’s kind of the whole thing with parenting anyway, and you should turn it up in that situation.

              *The coke version: a family in line for Peter Pan first thing in the morning when we took our kids. 4 person family, with boy about 8 and girl about 4. Kids DO NOT want to wait in line for that ride, which is already a solid 45 minutes. Mom: “we are GOING TO DO THIS RIDE. It is your FATHER’S FAVORITE.” Dad: making no eye contact, but looking pissed off he may not get to do the ride.


      • When I was an eight year old, yes. That’s part of the joke. “Its a small world after all” is best sung with an air of forced enthusiasm. Everybody pretends to like each other but really wants to rip each other’s throat. International Brotherhood Week is the more honest version of this. The International is for everybody who believes that the United Nations is a communist plot to destroy national sovereignty.


  7. great article as always

    I find my self torn. In my capacity as the administrator of a Railway Museum City of New Orleans speaks to me…..in my other profession of Textile Conservator and having actually worked on THE Star Spangled Banner I have a certain wish for it to remain the national anthem. Though I really don’t like the song as well. Much prefer This Land is Your Land.

    Best state song….OOOOOKLAHOMA! Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain…..


  8. Interesting piece Kristin. I will also agree that The Star Spangled Banner has problems. I’m also surprised that no one suggested my favorite, ‘America the Beautiful’. For me it is the perfect blend of patriotism and an appreciation for the natural wonders of our country.


    • That one’s my favorite too – not just for the natural wonders, but also for the particular *type* of the patriotism, aiming toward better meeting an ideal rather than asserting it’s already met. Here in Colorado, we sing it a lot. (Even at baseball games, in the home stretch.)

      The heavy-handed religiosity makes me wary of prescribing it, even though historically *of course* Bates saw and framed things that way. But I much prefer it as an ideal of America and it’d be a better anthem than the SSB.


  9. Actually, Panama has one of the best anthems: it specifically rejects the militaristic past conflicts, and focuses on work, labor and progress.

    It was composed in 1903, upon the Independence, and the start of the (US works) of the Panama Canal. It was adopted as anthem in 1925

    Plus the music is pretty too


    This is actually a very good video, with lots of views of Panama – there’s case of IPA’s saying that what Panama actually looks like will surprise a lot of you (and there’s a train in the video too)


    Alcanzamos por fin la victoria At last we reached victory
    En el campo feliz de la unión; In the joyous field of union
    Con ardientes fulgores de gloria With fiery blazes of glory
    Se ilumina la nueva nación! The new nation is alight. (Repeat last 2 lines.)

    Es preciso cubrir con un velo It is necessary to veil
    Del pasado el calvario y la cruz; from the past both Calvary and cross;
    Y que adorne el azul de tu cielo Let now the blue of your sky be adorned with
    De concordia la espléndida luz. From concord, the splendid light

    El progreso acaricia tus lares. Progress caresses your ancestral home.
    Al compás de sublime canción, To the rhythm of a sublime song,
    Ves rugir a tus pies ambos mares You see both seas at your feet roar
    Que dan rumbo a tu noble misión. Setting the path to your noble mission.

    (Repeat Chorus)

    En tu suelo cubierto de flores In your soil covered with flowers
    A los besos del tibio terral, To the kisses of the warm land breeze
    Terminaron guerreros fragores; Warrior roars have ceased;
    Sólo reina el amor fraternal. Only fraternal love reigns.

    Adelante la pica y la pala, Go, shovel and pick,
    Al trabajo sin más dilación, To work with no more delays,
    Y seremos así prez y gala And we will be pride and ornery.
    De este mundo feraz de Colón. Of this fruitful world of Columbus



  10. 1. There can be no dispute that no one would pick the SSB as our anthem if it was not already our anthem.

    2. I have long thought France wins this competition going away. Still do.

    3. I’m pretty confident this is the wrong replacement song, only because it seems hard to imagine a bunch of third graders singing at a talent show. America the Beautiful seems much closer to the right thing. Not because it’s a better song from a musical criticism perspective but for the third-grade-talent-show reason.


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