Interview by Margaret Russo
Dona Buel, associate professor of music, discusses the past, present and future of patriotic music.
Patriotic music is such an intrinsic part of American culture. What pieces have made the biggest impact and why?
“The Star-Spangled Banner” will endure as long as it is our national anthem. It represents honor and loyalty. Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words when he saw the American Flag still waving after the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British during the War of 1812. “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” became, in a sense, our second national anthems after 9/11. The lyrics of both paint a portrait of the American landscape and the blessings of freedom. “Stars and Stripes Forever” is a great example of a musically inspiring march. Nothing is more stirring than the concluding section of the piece in which the opening melody returns in a heightened and dramatic rendition highlighted by the addition of the piccolo. “God Bless the USA” is a recent addition to patriotic music. With its strong message and beat, it fits into the contemporary framework. Consistent airplay following the Gulf War and 9/11 has made it one of the popular patriotic songs today.
Is there room in today's repertoire for a new wave of patriotic music, or do you feel that Americans will always feel more comfortable with the standards?
Patriotic music is unique. Unlike other forms of music in which new music is expected, people prefer the traditional standards. Familiar patriotic music has been a source of strength and comfort as evidenced by the strong resurgence of “God Bless America” after 9/11. Over the years, the standards represent our country's endurance during times of war and national stress. However, variations on the familiar tunes have kept the music fresh. Ray Charles's “America The Beautiful” and Whitney Houston's version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” are popular examples. As far as new patriotic music is concerned, country music has made inroads. The nature of story-telling lyrics always has the capacity to communicate to the American people.
What's some little-known history behind our patriotic songs?
The music of some patriotic pieces has been adapted from other sources. The melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the theme song for the Anacreontic Club of London. “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was originally “John Brown's Body Lies A-smolderin' in the Grave” and the music for "This Land Is Your Land” is a Baptist Hymn originally performed by the legendary country singers, The Carter Family.