Nation Awaits




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by Ernest Thompson Seton


In the last few years many thousands of attempts have been made to write a national song, and so far as known all have been utter failures.

A glance at the material submitted shows a wholly wrong conception of a national song; indeed a wrong idea of the whole subject of song.

Apparently none of the aspirants have recognized the wide t difference between a song and a poem; not one of them has recognized the difference between a poem and an anthem; not one of them has recognized the difference between a lyric and a marching song.

A poem is a more or less pleasing succession of statements, utilizing the beauties of language and ideas; it is designed to be spoken by one voice.

An anthem is a single poem (in responsive parts originally) set to music which must be slow enough to permit enunciation by many voices singing at once.

A lyric is a slight poem, a succession of sketchy ideas, tied together by a repetitive portion, set to music, to be sung by one voice.

A national song must consist of a succession of very brief, simple, inspiring statements, alternating with a succession of mere vocables--that is, modulated rhythmic shouting which begets and vents enthusiasm, but does not count for its effect on words or enunciated ideas. It should be in marching time, for that is the tune of heroic thought and action, and it must be suitable for a multitude of voices singing together. It may or may not be antiphonal or arranged in responses like the original anthem.

If these definitions are accepted and used as tests we shall find that all recent attempts at a national song have been poems of varying merit, but foredoomed to failure from their plan.

It is generally conceded that at present we have no truly national song; certainly none officially established.  We rise to the "flag song" but no one considers it satisfactory or permanent.  It is accepted till we get a better.  An examination of its parts shows that it fails in every essential but one and in that is overdone.   It is replete with heroic statement.  But it is not simple; it is not good rhythm; it is not suitable for singing; it is not a marching song; it does not offer a repeated phrase of swinging, stirring vocables in which all can join.

It is unfortunate in conception. Imagine beginning our national anthem by raising a question as to whether our flag is still flying or not.  We know perfectly well that it is flying, and is going to go right on a-flying.

I do not know anything to commend its rival "America" except the dignity of the music, which, however, is preempted by Great Britain.

One can select from a long list of national songs examples which have been kept alive by one or more of the essentials already listed, in spite of their lack of the other elements. The "Marseillaise," for instance, though superb in rhythm, ring and tramp, is far overburdened with statements, for which weakness however, the national genius has found a remedy by ignoring the statements, except the initial one of each section, turning the rest into mere trumpetesque vocables.

Very rarely do we hear more than the first two lines of the "Marseillaise." The genius of the people is greater than the genius of the man who wrote it.  The fact is that it is the French national air, but it is not truly their national song.

On the other hand, every song that has sprung spontaneously from the heart of the people responds in form to these rules, but not always, alas! in the elevation of its sentiment.  The nearest approaches in America to national song as here defined, are the negro spirituals and the college yells.

"Mary and Martha" or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," are good examples of perfect song form carried by ring and swing, by the appeal to the popular ear without any appeal to the higher instincts or emotions.

Shakespeare's songs are commonly correct, as for example, the page's song in "As You Like It."

It was a lover and his lass
With a hey and a ho, and a hey nonino
That o'er the green cornfields did pass
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding
Sweet lovers love the spring.

The second, fourth, fifth and sixth lines are the repetitive portions throughout.

The traditional songs of England, Ireland and Scotland, are usually correct, although they have been curiously hybridized by the ballad, which is simply rhythmic history and has little in common with the national song.

The traditional song "A frog he would a-wooing go," is an example of perfect form in the lyric.

If we take various popular patriotic songs that our country has produced we find only three that have in any measure established themselves in the hearts and voices of the people as national songs. They are "John Brown's Body," "Yankee Doodle," and "Dixie," all three born of the heroic spirit of the time, and all filling the definition perfectly, except that the slight statement prefacing each new explosion of vocables is unheroic; is indeed absurd, and a careful analysis shows that these are each and all of them national airs, not national songs.  If some of our poets would rewrite these in accord with the genius of patriotic song, we should probably have an accepted permanent national song.

And which of our poets is competent?  I hope I shall not be thought flippant if I claim that the man who can compose a successful college yell, is more likely than any other to be equipped for the problem and respond with the much desired expression of national spirit.  As a step toward the solution I suggest that one acceptable form might be this:

bulletBrief rhythmic statement suitable for one or maybe more voices.
bulletMere vocables, modulated rhythmic shouting for many voices, repeated at alternate intervals.

Such a structural unit rendered in simple martial strains, repeated twice or thrice, might fulfill all the conditions and supply us at once with a national air and a national song, one that will answer to this, the great test, that it so exactly voices the national feeling in time of exaltation, that it becomes the spontaneous expression of noble, patriotic emotion, and fixes itself so firmly in the minds of the people that it can live without print.

The Birch Bark Roll






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.