Sweet Freedom's Song: "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and Democracy in America. (Book Reviews: Diverse Topics).
Americans have been thin king about and singing patriotic songs more in the past several months than in the months or years that preceded II September 2001. What is the purpose of such songs, and how do they make the singer and the listener feel- or even behave? Can a song have meaning and dramatic appeal beyond its melody and surface text, touching something deep and complex? More specifically, can music function as "political persuasion" (p. 4), and can it enable transformations? These are the types of questions that Robert James Branham and Stephen Hartnett consider as they delve into the political, historical, and cultural aspects of God Save the King and, later, America or My Country 'Tis of Thee. The preface explains that the storied history of this song enabled Branham to "explore the promises, possibilities, and compromises of democracy in America" (p. vii). He did not live to see the book's completion, but he had enlisted Hartnett to finish the project. Hartnett writes that he resisted "rarified acad emic jargon and sought to produce a narrative that is clear and accessible while still honoring the awesome complexity of the materials addressed here" (p. viii). The respect that both men felt toward the song, the American nation, and democracy is evident throughout.
The authors emphasize details of the various texts that have been associated with the familiar tune. It is described as having "lyrical and musical simplicity, which enables even marginally talented poets to rewrite its lyrics without much effort, while even the tone-deaf can learn quickly to sing along with its simple tune" (p. 8). They acknowledge, however, that some composers (Lowell Mason, for example) relish a composition's simplicity as a key to its usefulness and that simple songs ( When Johnny Comes Marching Home, for example) often "served the more pressing function of voicing oppositional politics" (p. 10).
Branham and Hartnett also use American history to tackle the problem of defining patriotism, or at least to outline the issues in defining it. This is, of course, a topic still relevant in the early twenty-first century. They illuminate paradoxical and ironic new texts sung to America, such as a version from 1861 that reflects the fear of many Northerners that Britain might side with the South. Other versions (some printed in appendix A) offer expressions of criticism or dismay, raising serious questions about various political and social situations. Some people considered these texts to be as much a meaningful gesture of patriotism as a text expressing love and admiration of the nation. The authors show that a national song can be used to establish and mark a government's legitimacy at the same time that it can be used to highlight disagreements with that government's policies or actions.
As noted in the book's introduction, its five chapters proceed chronologically. In chapter 1, the authors examine the period ca. 1750--98, when England's God Save the King was being appropriated by colonists on both sides of the Revolution and then by the new Americans. Chapter 2 focuses on the 1830s and 1840s when the newly written, and now familiar, My Country 'Th of Thee text was popularized by music educators only to be altered by temperance, labor, and suffrage activists. Subsequent text versions were used by abolitionists from the 1830s through the beginning of the Civil War, as is made clear in chapter 3, to point out inconsistencies in America's offer of freedom. In chapter 4, the authors consider numerous variants of the song used between 1861 and the National Peace Jubilee in 1869, while their focus in chapter 5 is on America as a tool of political protest between 1870 and 1932. Thus, they view the chapters as "extended case studies" of the song's use in "grassroots activism or how it has evolved as "a political act, a historical artifact, and a cultural text" (pp. 4-5). An epilogue titled "'America,' 'God Save the Queen,' and Postmodernity" is followed by two appendices. Appendix A offers sixteen varied (and entertaining) texts associated with the familiar tune, arranged chronologically from 1744 to 1891. Appendix B provides a selective bibliographical list of alternate American versions of both Cod Save the King and America from 1759 to 1900. Notes and a thorough index complete the book.
Comment on a few of the historical facts gleaned from Hartnett's intricately woven tale of the complex history of the song's texts may be in order here. Hartnett writes that the origins and authorship of Cod Save the King are uncertain but that the text was extant well before its publication in Thesaurus Musicus (London: J. Simpson, 1744). By the nineteenth-century reign of Queen Victoria, the text and tune were ensconced in royal affairs. In the meantime, singing God Save the King in the American colonies was viewed both as a proper show of support by loyalists and as a means of rebellion by those opposed to the monarchy.
The My Country 'Tis of Thee text created by Samuel Francis Smith was first performed on 4 July 1831 at Park Street Church in Boston. At the time, Smith did not make the American-British links in the song's history, for he learned it from a collection of German songs provided to him by Lowell Mason. The patriotic German text he encountered inspired his heartfelt words about America. Because he was writing at a time of renewed tension between the United States and Britain, the third of Smith's five stanzas referred to "tyrants." The song's subsequent label as a "hymn" likely stems from the references to God in the final verse. Hartnett provides many additional points of interest about Smith and the use of his specific lyrics.
Sweet Freedom's Song provides reading which is as fascinating for its coverage of history as for its analysis of the texts. The myriad details the authors provide can force the reader to move slowly-this is nor a book to skim or to add to a list of light reading. But considering their mission and the convoluted history of My Country 'Tis of Thee, this approach seems warranted. Hartnett manages to fulfill his goal of avoiding jargon-the topic is simply too complex for this. When reading the book straight through in a critical manner, the reader finds what seems to be considerable repetition. The material about "antimonarchism" (p. 41). for example, is too similar to points already made concerning the "rejection of British authority" (p. 35). This minor drawback might actually be beneficial if only selected portions of interest are read at a time, even though the complex nature of the historical detail would have made that approach challenging.
The authors have not necessarily proven convincingly that this song itself has been able to persuade and transform. More realistic descriptions might be "inspire," "arouse," "illuminate," or "give voice." But certainly Branham and Hartnett have provided valuable insight, and show the manner by which a song's text and variations can provide both microscopic views and mirror reflections of a nation and a society. The textual variants analyzed by the authors reflect contradiction, anger, hope, and vision. They redefine, redeem, and heal, and yet "point simultaneously to a series of shared assumptions about the fundamental premises of the nation" (p. 196).
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2003|
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