On this day in 1931, unemployment stood in the double digits. The world crisis was well under way; within weeks the Credit Anstalt would go bankrupt, precipitating the end of the interwar gold standard.

And what were Herbert Hoover and the Congress up to? Making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the National Anthem. The Senate passed the law on March 3, and Hoover appears to have signed it the same day, as it entered the statute books that day, at 46 Stat. 1508. Plenty of objections were raised; the Music Supervisors National Conference complained that “the sentiments expressed in ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ are not representative of a peace-loving nation.” Faculty at Teachers College, Columbia, agreed on its unsuitability, not because “it was sung originally, with different words, in English taverns by boisterous tradesmen. What they opposed was its martial flavor…. Peter W. Dykem, a professor of music education at Teachers College, admitted that it ranked with the ‘Marseillaise’ among the great national anthems, but said it required ‘a feeling of danger’ to be properly sung…. ‘It would be very undesirable to have it be created America’s official song,’ he asserted. ‘The national anthem must be sung even when there is no crisis.'” Folks wrote to The New York Times in favor of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” and “America, the Beautiful.”

No dice: “The Star-Spangled Banner” it would be, despite the overwhelming evidence that “the music is ill-adapted to a national anthem, which should be of a moderate range, to be compassed by ordinary voices,” as one Albert S. Bard put it in a letter to the NYT. Or, as the great Tony Kushner has his character Belize put it:

The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on earth sounds less like freedom to me.

Of course, the rest of Kushner’s play tempers that sentiment. But it doesn’t redeem the song itself.

I confess to a distinct appreciation of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I think “The Star Spangled Banner” beats “God Bless America”—at least the SSB has the merit of historical specificity. OTOH, “God Bless America,” I think rather rightly, inspired Woody Guthrie to write the original “This Land”:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people—
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God Blessed America for me.

I’m not sure what a modern national anthem would sound like. “The Last Great American Whale”? “Our Song”? “The Body of an American”? I quite like the idea of bellowing “I’m a free-born man of the U.S.A.” at football games.


“The National Anthem,” NYT 2/5/1930, p. 18.

“Star Spangled Banner is Voted National Anthem by Congress,” NYT 3/4/1931, p. 1.

“‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ Not Favored by Everybody,” NYT 2/9/1930, p. E5.

“‘Star-Spangled Banner’ Opposed as Anthem; Music Supervisors Vote Protest to Congress,” NYT 3/30/1930, p. 3.

“Want Peace Ideal in National Anthem,” NYT 2/9/1930, p. N7.

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