On a recent Sunday, I did not go to church, as
I had to leave town just after noon to attend an event in Johnston, Pa.
This gave me the opportunity to listen to a public radio program I
seldom hear. PRI’s Studio 360
was running a “Redesign July 4th Competition,” and invited listeners to
submit contemporary replacements (or updates or re-conceptualizations) for Uncle Sam
or the National Anthem.
Winners are to be announced on the July 4th weekend.
I had no ideas about updating Uncle Sam, and,
lacking graphical skills, I would have been unable to instantiate them
had I had any. A new National Anthem, however, seemed within my grasp.
I put on my poet’s cap and got to work. In
particular, I began composing a poem as I drove to Johnstown. (This was
not the first poetry writing I’ve done driving between Pittsburgh and
Johnstown. See “How Can I Miss You?”.)
I wrote what I intended to be the first verse
of an anthem text. Its inspiration was “American the Beautiful” or
perhaps “This land is your land”:
From Alaska’s icy waters
To Hawaii’s newest land,
From California’s coastline
To Carolina’s sand,
The beauty of our country
Can be seen at every hand.
Over the next few
days, I began creating additional six-line stanzas with end rhymes in
lines 2, 4, and 6. I sat back and took stock after completing four
stanzas, at which point I recognized that (1) most lines had 8
syllables, (2) the lines of the original stanza were especially
irregular with regard to line length, and (3) the first stanza was
largely unrelated to the sentiments expressed in what followed. I fixed these
problems by dropping the original stanza and making all lines 8
In composing my anthem, I had several goals in
mind. I wanted to emphasize the nation, rather than something
only symbolic of it, such as the flag. I wanted to keep God out of the
text, since we are a secular state, despite the “Christian” claims of
some. I did not want the text to be about military might, which has
never been foundational for the United States. Oh, and I wanted an
anthem that was explicit about what country was being sung about.
Whether I wrote a good text or not, I
think I largely fulfilled my content requirements. The title, of course,
is taken from the
Great Seal of the United States. The two Latin mottos of the seal
inspired the last line of the first stanza and the first line of the
second. I was talked out of using “E Pluribus Unun” for the title,
settling for the translation “Out of Many, One.”
It is worth
mentioning that I had some problems with the last line of the first
verse. “Brand new” at first seemed very commercial and contemporary, but
I needed a one-syllable word before “new,” and “brand” worked well as
far as the meter went. As it happens, “brand new” seems to have
originated in the sixteenth century, when “brand” referred to a branding
iron or some such. That usage seemed sufficiently venerable for me to use the
phrase in an anthem for a country established in 1776.
Music was trickier.
I have composed a few tunes—see, for example, “O
Lord the Invisible”—but I am a writer, not a composer. I began by
checking the metrical index of the Episcopal hymnal for tunes that might
work with my text. Nothing worked well, though “Melita,” the tune
of the Navy Hymn, was not awful. It was at this point that I realized
that a more
conventional text would have been constructed from three rhymed
couplets. (I was unmoved. by this insight, however.) I concluded that I would have to write my own tune.
Again, I set
certain constraints for myself. The tune should be singable, having
notes neither too low nor too high. It should be coherent, but not too
repetitive. (Some very good tunes are repetitive, however.) Finally, the
character of the tune should be stirring, more martial than pastoral. We
sing our anthem at sporting events, which is no time for
sweet and lovely. The meter, I thought, should be 4/4 or, more likely,
I quickly found a
first line, but what seemed like the “natural” second line had too few
notes; I had to insert more notes. It took some time, but
progress was steady, if not quick. I finished the tune in a day once I
sat down at a piano. I am mostly satisfied with the final
result. I think it is not boring, has a bit of drama, and is reasonably singable, though its range is slightly wider than I might have liked.
Originally, the tune was pitched a fourth higher; I lowered the key to
make it easier to sing. I named the tune “E Pluribus Unum.”
Once I had a tune,
I looked into how my anthem was to be submitted to Studio 360.
was dismayed to discover that it was to be submitted via
YouTube. In general, I
don’t do video. I felt a bit conned. I was writing music because I’m not
graphically talented, a deficiency that includes video production.
Eventually, I realized that I could do a slide show with music. In the
end, I used a piece of software that had been sitting unused on my
Microsoft Photo Story 3. No doubt there is much that this software
doesn’t do, but it was perfect for the task at hand, which was a slide
show with music.
the organist and choirmaster at my church, arranged my tune and played
it on the church’s organ. I sang the anthem in a not totally
embarrassing performance and recorded the result. A corrected version of
what I submitted to
Studio 360 can be seen below. (The original version was missing a
comma.) You can see submissions from other