As we approach the 244th anniversary of America’s independence, I am drawn to the songs — the national anthems — that wonderfully, prophetically, and hopefully proclaim freedom in our country. Words and music penned by patriotic and God-fearing, yet complex and flawed, human beings have given us a legacy upon which to build unity of purpose.
In 1814, Francis Scott Key was eye witness to the British bombardment of Fort McHenry. So impressed by the perseverance and triumph of his fellow Americans, he immortalized his experience in his poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” later set to the tune of a then-popular drinking song and becoming “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Key, a successful lawyer, was a man of bewildering contradiction. He owned slaves yet freed many, decades before the Civil War; a devout Christian, he decried the evils of slavery, and even freely represented some who sought emancipation in the courts, yet he acted in opposition to the growing abolitionist movement. Nevertheless, each verse of our official National Anthem concludes with a picture of the American flag flying “o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” Surely an endorsement, despite Key’s personal hypocrisy, of the “promissory note” spoken of by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his matchless 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“America” (My Country ’Tis of Thee) was first published in 1832, having been written the previous year by Baptist minister and journalist Samuel Francis Smith. It was first performed on July 4, 1831 in Boston, to the familiar British melody of “God Save the King.” This anthem, replete with Christian sentiment, serves as a prayer for America to live up to its pledge. “Let freedom ring!” resounds from the first stanza, calling for us to be the “land of the noble free” in the second. Verse three says “sweet freedom’s song” is to “ring from all the trees,” and by the final verse we appeal to God as the “Author of liberty,” that America should be “bright, with freedom’s holy light.” In 1843, abolitionist A.G. Duncan penned alternate verses, condemning the sin of slavery. Now it is “wailing,” not singing, over this grave wound in our nation that appeals to the “Author of liberty” to uphold “holy freedom’s right” so “freedom’s flag, unfurl’d, shall wave throughout the world.” Dr. King, too, dreamed of the day when every one of “God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: ‘let freedom ring!’ ”
After visiting a Union Army camp in November 1861, staunch abolitionist Julia Ward Howe composed the iconic “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” set to a hymn tune attributed to William Steffe. While arguably the most well-known song emanating from the Civil War, this hymn both warns of God’s righteous judgment on the nation’s sin and encourages the fight for a just cause: “He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgement seat,” yet Christ’s glory “transfigures you and me.” Howe admonishes us that “as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” all while “His truth is marching on.” Later, outside the context of war, the lyrics were altered to call us to “live to make men free” — to stand for justice and mercy, honor and forgiveness. Again, Dr. King echoed this when he expressed his faith that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5 KJV).
Finally, “America the Beautiful” — certainly the most picturesque of our national anthems — was written in 1893 by Colorado English teacher Katherine Lee Bates. Inspired by the grandeur of the view from Pikes Peak, her poem was set to an 1882 hymn tune by Samuel A. Ward in 1910. Bates describes the incredible beauty and diversity of the American landscape (a metaphor for its people?), while calling on God to “mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” This song extols America’s heroes, “who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.” Howe saw America as a patriot’s dream that eagerly anticipates a better future, one in which God would “crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.” This is the “beautiful symphony of brotherhood” that Dr. King foresaw.
I have read these words, sung them countless times and been inspired by them. I hope you find at least some food for thought, but perhaps like me you can find the promise of unity, of brotherhood, of grace that has been sung down the generations. This Independence Day I invite you join with me in praying for peace and singing “from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
Dr. Melinda Lein is associate professor of music at Wingate University where she teaches voice and music history. She can be contacted at email@example.com.