June 13, 2010

National Symbols

Uncle Sam
The PRI program Studio 360 is running a “Redesign July 4th Challenge.” The producers suggest that Uncle Sam and the National Anthem could use some updating, and they are asking artists and musicians to try their hands at modernizing or replacing these two symbols of the nation. This is an intriguing idea, and I may even have a go at devising a replacement anthem. (Since my graphic capabilities are more or less limited to drawing circles and straight lines, I’ll leave the Uncle Sam challenge to others.)

The Studio 360 Challenge got me thinking that both the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem are about the American flag. In fact, even Uncle Sam is clad in clothing suggesting the flag, in some depictions, more strongly than in others. What is it about the flag, anyway?

U.S. flagUncle Sam’s flag attire seems entirely natural, since Uncle Sam, like the flag itself, is a graphical symbol. (He is a kind of meta-symbol, being a symbol referring to another symbol.) Neither the Pledge nor the National Anthem has an obviously necessary tie to the flag, however, yet the flag, in both instances, serves as a stand-in for more fundamental concepts of nationhood.

I don’t really know what to do with Uncle Sam, and I look forward to seeing what the artist-contestants of the Redesign Challenge come up with. As I have written elsewhere, I believe that the Pledge is defective in several ways, particularly in its indirection in its use of the flag. (I believe we should pledge our support of the Constitution.) The National Anthem is likewise indirect. It celebrates a military victory in the war that assured our continued independence from England. It is rightly criticized as triumphalist, militaristic, and possessed of impossibly contorted syntax. It seems out of place in 2010.


  1. The National Anthem is also unsingable by most of us. I nominate "Yankee Doodle" for its outrageous sassiness.

  2. With all due respect, the only problem with the music of the National Anthem is that it is pitched to high for modern untrained singers: (B flat Major) in the Hymnal and most song books.

    Transpose it down to G Major. It will begin on D and go down to G (as the lowest note) the basses and altos as well as most untrained singers will love it.

    The highest note will be D and practically everyone will be able to sing it (if they but try).

    Play it with a full solid organ sound at a good tempo with strong rhythm. The people will sing and they will love it!

    I've done this for years and it does work!

  3. Transposing the tune of the National Anthem might indeed make it more singable. But some “professional” singers screw it up by trying to be too cute—“original,” I suspect they would call it. I don’t know what to do about that. Also, the unfamiliar words and syntax lead to many embarrassing moments involving singers who are too lazy or too dumb to figure out what they’re supposed to be singing.

    Thinking of “O Canada” made me realize another peculiarity of “The Star-spangled Banner”—it never mentions the name of the country whose anthem it is.

  4. Lionel, I certainly agree with you about so called professionals “stylizing” the National Anthem. Surely turning it into a solo piece sung at sporting events and other mass gatherings has led to all sorts of musical (?) silliness.

    My suggestions about transposition and tempo were for those who seriously want to return the singing back to the people.

    I defer to others on the subject of text.

    Best to you – Conrad Soderstrom

  5. I'm a big fan of just changing the national anthem to America the Beautiful. It's very singable, and a more positive message.

  6. I appreciate your work. I’ve been looking for quite some time such an useful resource and I’m very glad I found it. Keep up the good work! USA Flag


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