And Crown Thy Good With Brotherhood, From Sea to Shining Sea

America is blessed with splendid patriotic songs, but America the Beautiful is in a league of its own (along with Hatikvah, of course).

I am a sucker for moving national anthems. I love the French Marseilliaise, delight in Il Canto degli Italia, love walking to China’s March of the Volunteers, know all the words of Advance Australia Fair, am awed by the Japanese Kimigayo and can conjure Pele dancing the samba whenever Hino Nacional Brasileirois performed. Like most mortals, I also yearn suddenly for a monarchy whenever I hear God Save the Queen.

I have always been smitten with the spectacular Russian national anthem, the lyrics of which have changed with the ebb and flow of Moscow regimes ever since it was first introduced by Stalin in 1944. Its predecessor, The Internationale, still strikes a strong nostalgic chord in most Israelis of my generation, because for many years it was the unofficial second anthem of Israel’s founding socialist Labor parties – and its affiliated youth movements. David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and Shimon Peres, of course, all stood proudly to attention for many years while calling on the “enslaved masses” to stand up and “erase the past”.

But nothing compares with America’s unbelievably plentiful bounty of beautiful patriotic songs. From the Air Force’s uplifting Wild Blue Yonder to the Marines’ resolute Halls of Montezuma, the inspiration of The Battle Hymn of the Republic’s  “Glory, Glory Hallelujah”, the sweet “sweet land of liberty” in My Country ‘Tis of Thee - which somehow evokes its own distinct American identity despite being set to the tune of God Save the King, as he then was -  “our” Jewish contribution, naturally, in Irving Berlin’s masterful God Bless America and, of course, the triumphantly defiant “land of the free and home of the brave” of the Star Spangled Banner, which never fails to evoke a choke at baseball games and such, even though, as an Israeli, I don’t mouth the words but only whisper them inside where no one is watching.

The jewel in the crown, as far as I am concerned, is the only anthem that can truly compete with Hatikvah, my one and only, is America the Beautiful.  The rousing words written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates after her climb to Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs – where immense forest fires, hopefully not symbolically, have been burning away thousands of acres of forest in recent days - and their miraculous coupling after many years with the music originally written by New York church musician Samuel Ward for the Christian hymn “Oh Mother Dear, Jerusalem” (!) are like a perfect marriage that can only be made in heaven. Of all the stirring American anthems, it is easiest for me to understand how America the Beautiful could cause American soldiers on the killing fields in Verdun to break out in spontaneous song and tears at 11:11 A.M. on Armistice Day on November 11, 1918, or accompany troops as they first saw the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944 or, more recently, give aid and succor to a stunned and grieving America after the atrocities of September 11.

I only recently found out about the epic battle of the late 1920s and early 1930s, between America the Beautiful and the Star Spangled Banner, over the privilege of being designated the official American national anthem - a duel that was settled by Congress and President Herbert Hoover in 1931, in favor of the latter.

I have no doubt that I would have sided with those who championed the sweeping portrayal of America’s unparalleled physical beauty and moral aspirations over Francis Scott Key’s rather militaristic description of the bombardment of Fort McHenryby the British Royal Navythe War of 1812, especially as it was set to an old tune originally composed in an uppercrust men’s drinking club in London.

But as I love the Star Spangled Banner, I would never have gone as far as Albert Payson Terhune who is quoted in a beautiful book about America the Beautiful written by Lynn Sherr as having written to Bates at the height of the anthem face-off: “It is America, not a petty naval action in a half-forgotten war fitted to the semi-unsingable air of a ponderous old English booze song.”

But America the Beautiful, I believe, only benefitted from its loss and from the freedom from the constraints of protocol and decorum, It thus remains a genuine “people’s anthem” that comes from the heart and is sung by free will, not by custom or convention. It is, for me, a magnificent ode to an American ideal of beauty and virtue, from august “purple mountain majesties” to the often ignored plea to “confirm thy soul in self-control” and the longing for heroes “who more than self their country loved.” And - coming full circle, in what seems eerily close to the sentiments if not the exact words of L’Internazionale and so far away from today’s prevailing winds:  “Till selfish gain no longer stain 
The banner of the free!"

So, on America’s 236th, here’s my prayer to crowning thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea, just as I still have hopes, for whatever reason, that one day we might indeed be a free people in our land of Zion and Jerusalem, though the direction, in both cases, is far from encouraging.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev