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A Little Touch of Woody in the Night

Am I the only one who really dislikes the modern trend of treating “God Bless America” as a quasi-national anthem? This phenomenon came about following 9/11. It should by all rights have been short-lived, but it turns out to have legs.

We still get the actual national anthem before games, but “God Bless America” has largely displaced “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the seventh inning stretch at baseball games. This is not an improvement. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was fun. It gave us a change to stand up and move around a bit, and join in the singing. If you heard some joker belting out “One more time!” at the end, that was me. [1][2] Not so with “God Bless America.” We take off our hats and stand quietly wearing solemn expressions as someone else sings it. I draw the line at placing my hand over my heart, but lots of people do this.

Is it just me, or is “God Bless America” a crappy song? Trite and unchallenging, both musically and lyrically, with the banal sentiment of divine favor that gives American exceptionalism a bad name. Sure, “The Star Spangled Banner” has its issues, what with that high note and questionable grammar, but it is provocative in a good way. It asks questions. I like that in a national anthem. Are we still the land of the free? Key was asking if we had kept the Brits out, but the question can be taken other, and interesting, ways. “God Bless America” doesn’t ask any potentially awkward questions. It is straight Rah! Rah! boosterism. Seeing it raised to quasi-anthem status is not an improvement.

I bring this up because I was pleasantly surprised last Friday listening to the Orioles game. Not by the outcome. They had a dismal weekend, being swept at home by Minnesota. feh. But a minute or so into the seventh inning stretch, awareness gradually worked its way into my frontal lobe that I was hearing this:

The cockles of my heart (whatever they are) were warmed. Sure, he didn’t get to the real rabble-rousing verse about the “No Tresspassing” sign, but still…

This seems to have been a one-off. Over the weekend they reverted to the usual. But good for the Orioles for their willingness to push things a bit.

[1] Among my superpowers is the ability to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” with the words offset from the music by two notes. What can I say? It’s a gift.

[2] What we all know is just the chorus. Listen to the verses and it turns out that it is a girl telling a guy what it will take to get some action with her. God Bless America!

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46 thoughts on “A Little Touch of Woody in the Night

    • My first thought was surely not the Battle Hymn of the Republic. That was an unabashedly Union song. But looking into it, I see that it was performed at the state funerals of both Nixon and Reagan (and, a bit oddly, Winston Churchill). So the Republican Party seems to regard it has having been rehabilitated from its unsavory origins. It probably helps that the politics are left implicit.

      I rather like it, myself. Not its theology. That is pretty awful. But it is a real barn burner of a poem, and setting it to John Brown’s Body was inspired.

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    • Interestingly Woody Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land in response to God Bless America or America the Beautiful.

      I’d rather sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic or the Battle Cry for Freedom over God Bless America.

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        • God Bless America is pure treacle. I consider the Battle Hymn of the Republic to be one of the most anti-Confederate songs written in history. The Christian imagery is too much but the lyrics are clear about what a curse and evil slavery is.

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          • Except that all of the imagery is sufficiently vague that it ultimately boils down to Going To War Against Evil In The Name of God and the Good.

            I mean, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a fantastic song. Which is one of the things that makes it so unsettling. It can make an atheist want to go to war in the name of God.

            I agree with your assessment of GBA. It’s very weak sauce, as such compromises usually are.

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                • Using an explicit Christian song as the theme song for our response to the Taliban and Iraq II would have gone over very well. (Sarcasm). Bush might not have made the best decisions from my point of view but at least he wasn’t this dumb.

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                  • He might not have been, but that song had a resurgence after 9/11 for a reason. It spoke to a time, and not a liberal-friendly one. It was the anthem taken up by the right in the South as we were going to war against a couple Muslim nations.

                    Owing in part that the lyrics were not at all limited to the Union or abolitionist cause.

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                • “He is trampling out the vintage
                  Where the grapes of wrath are stored
                  He has loosed the fateful lightening
                  Of His terrible swift sword
                  His truth is marching on”

                  “I have read a fiery gospel
                  Writ in burnish’d rows of steel
                  As ye deal with my condemners
                  So with you my grace shall deal
                  Let the hero, born of woman
                  Crush the serpent with his heel
                  Since God is marching on”

                  This is pure abolition! The Civil War was the price the United States needed to pay for having slavery.

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                  • If somebody had no knowledge of the song’s history or origins, would they be able to place it specifically as a Union anthem for the Civil War?

                    I’m not saying that it wasn’t written about the Civil War. I’m saying that it transcends that origin into a song of war embraced by God against unholy enemies of same.

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          • Eh? The only reference to slavery I see is the line “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” and even that we only know to be about slavery from the historical context.

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            • Yes, but that line is the thesis of the entire song.

              Personally, I appreciate Mark Twain’s revision of the song, which is an accurate description of most or all of the wars after the American Civil War that were purportedly fought “for freedom”.

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              • Not sure I’d agree it’s the “thesis,” though it may arguably be implicitly the thesis, if you accept that the eradication of slavery was logically required by or implicit within the Declaration and Constitution, or the American Idea.

                Interestingly, there is in fact one direct reference to the concept of slavery, in the final verse from the original manuscript, but not included in the published version:

                He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
                He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
                So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
                Our God is marching on.

                (Chorus)
                Glory, glory, hallelujah!
                Glory, glory, hallelujah!
                Glory, glory, hallelujah.
                Our God is marching on.

                …which almost comes across as bizarre, and I think certainly as esoteric and forced, compared to the rest – but yet it may be significant…

                https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Battle_Hymn_of_the_Republic#Other_versions

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        • I like it too, it’s a stately driven song, full of purpose and pride.
          (now, if only they’d stop singing the Star Spangled Banner as a dirge! — it’s supposed to be a fast, mirthful piece.)

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  1. Semi-OT but in the 1990s. Billy Bragg and Wilco released a great album of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs called Mermaid Avenue. My favorites are Ingrid Bergman and Hesitating Beauty.

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  2. Both of us vote for the conservative retention of Take Me Out to the Ballgame although This Land Is Your Land is very good. Watching the Red Sox game yesterday, we realized that all the rituals of the Star Spangled Banner, such as facing the flag with cap over heart, have been transferred to God Bless America.

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  3. I check out CDs from the kid’s section of the library every week or two without checking what’s on them. Last week happened to have a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land”. I couldn’t help but feel vaguely insecure about it.

    Also, I have to drop these here:

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  4. Since the purpose of the seventh inning stretch is to stretch and the song needs to be more Americana, may I suggest Simple Gifts. It was meant to be a dancing song, so the audience can do some choreographed movements to it.

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    • I’m not sure if they still do this, but at the minor league Frederick (Md.) Keys they would encourage the fans to take out their car keys and shake them. I I think this was sponsored by a car dealership. The club comes by the name semi-honestly. Francis Scott Key is buried across the street from the ballpark. But still, that is pretty cheesy.

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  5. The normal 7th inning stretch song at Camden Yards is Thank God I’m a Country Boy (preceded by take me out to the ball game for most games). Since 9/11 it has been preceded by God Bless America for Sunday games.

    Personally I could do without the God Bless America stuff. I struggle to see it as anything but a weird self-imposed propaganda. It reminds me of the episode in Catch-22 where everyone has to sign loyalty oaths to get their meals at the mess hall.

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  6. You know, it’s weird. I learned the “words offset” trick, but only one note, not two. I’m sure that I’m not the only person who can do this, since there’s the guy who taught me for sure.

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  7. God Bless America should only be sung by Kate Smith in Philadelphia at the Spectrum, but absent that rule, at least its better than the Lee Greenwood renaissance that also happened in the fall of 2001 and, thankfully, by now seems to have abated.

    Still, it should be noted that the playing the (US) National Anthem before nearly every sporting event in the US only became a permanent fixture thanks to the jingoist militarism brought on by WW2, never going to mothballs like most of the ships and tanks.

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