Tuesday theme – My Country Used To Be

Today’s theme song for ENGL 203-04 is “My Country Used to Be,” written and performed here by jazz singer-songwriter Dave Frishberg. Frishberg composed the song in the aftermath of the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The mood of Frishberg’s song is quite different from that of Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government,” written in protest of both slavery and the U.S. war with Mexico. Thoreau’s essay expresses outrage; this feels more like a lament. Despite the difference in mood, both express dissatisfaction with things as they are. Frishberg’s point of comparison is America as (he believes) it once was, while Thoreau’s is a “higher law” that America has failed to meet since its birth as a state whose founding legal document countenanced slavery.

Both represent contributions to the “unending conversation” among citizens of the United States as to what their country is, has been, and should be.

Thoreau makes his contribution through argument, using his night in jail (for refusing to pay the poll tax) as a springboard to explore the circumstances under which we do or don’t owe the law, or the state, our allegiance. Frishberg makes his contribution by re-purposing a patriotic melody — “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” — to convey his vision of an America that has lost its way.

Interestingly, we might understand Frishberg’s contribution to the conversation as itself an act of “resistance” or “civil disobedience.” In effect, he occupies “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (as well as “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) in much the way street protesters occupy public spaces for a march or demonstration.

By occupying patriotic music with subversive intent, Frishberg participates in a venerable tradition. Even “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” belongs to this tradition, consisting as it does of lyrics praising America put to the tune of “God Save The Queen,” a patriotic song of America’s former colonial ruler, Great Britain.

“The Star Spangled Banner” has been occupied many times. In 1844, two years before Thoreau’s arrest in Concord, the abolitionist newspaper Song of Liberty published E.A. Atlee’s powerful four-verse “Oh Say, Do You Hear?” Here’s just the first verse:

Oh, say do you hear, at the dawn’s early light,
The shrieks of those bondmen, whose blood is now streaming
From the merciless lash, while our banner in sight
With its stars, mocking freedom, is fitfully gleaming?
Do you see the backs bare? Do you mark every score
Of the whip of the driver trace channels of gore?
And say, doth our star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

You can read the other three verses (and hear “Oh Say, Do You Hear?” performed) on the website Star Spangled Music, which provides an extensive guide to the history and cultural significance of the national anthem.

One of the boldest and most remarkable recent occupations of the anthem was executed in 2008 by jazz singer René Marie, invited to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” before Denver mayor John Hickenlooper’s State of the City address. She plugged in the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Black National Anthem.” The mayor was not amused, and the governor, Bill Ritter, labeled the performance “disrespectful.”

Felix Contreras discusses Marie’s and four other memorable performances of the national anthem in his 2009 report for National Public Radio, “The Many Sides Of ‘The Star Spangled Banner.'” At least three of these performances (by José Feliciano, Jimi Hendrix, and Marvin Gaye) might also be seen as occupations of a kind — not through the substitution of new words for the traditional ones, but simply through their re-interpretations of the melody. Listening to Feliciano’s quiet and soulful version, performed before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, it’s hard to believe that he, too, was accused of disrespect. Was it really his version of the music people objected to? Or was it the fact of his laying claim simultaneously to his Puerto Rican and American identities through the re-mixing of musical traditions?

One may also wonder how much any of those who found Feliciano’s rendition disrespectful actually knew of the anthem’s history, and whether any of them realized how distant their idea of a “normal” rendition was from the way it would have been performed in Francis Scott Key’s time.

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