The Star-Spangled Banner is freaking terrible.
There, I said it. And I stand by it.
In the words of Adam Tod Brown, “the American national anthem tells the inspiring story of a brave flag that survives a scary night by believing in itself”.
It’s militaristic (an argument that has stretched back longer than you might think).
And it’s not even unique, being set to the tune of an old English drinking song, which Francis Scott Key had even put words to before.
But beyond those common criticisms, it’s just not American. That’s what I personally hate about the Banner. It doesn’t speak to me about anything that is particularly American. It’s the tale of a battle which could have happened at any time and any place since the invention of gunpowder. It’s a story of death and destruction and tragedy and bad blood between peoples and nation states, when what America should be IMVVHO is the antithesis of that. America shouldn’t be a piece of tattered cloth above a battleground. America should be represented by an image of industry and freedom and people from a wide variety of backgrounds coming together in peace and harmony to build something new and better. And our national anthem should reflect those ideals, even though, or perhaps especially because, they are not always perfectly enacted where the rubber hits the road. Our anthem should be a tribute to our dream for our country and not a paean to war.
Luckily for us, we already have the perfect song. It’s called City of New Orleans and I’m sure most people have heard it. If not, here’s a very famous rendition by Willie Nelson.
At first blush, this may seem to be a song about a train, but it’s really so much more than that. It’s a song that’s about America itself, about the promise of America. It’s American in a way that the rocket’s red glare never could be.
Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
There are fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
I especially like that little touch. The mail. In an age of instant communication, we sometimes forget how important something simple like carrying the mail cross-country was to the history of America, but from Postmaster Ben Franklin to the Pony Express, getting the mail through has been of critical import to our cohesiveness as a nation.
They’re all out on this southbound odyssey
And the train pulls out of Kankakee
Rolls past the houses, farms, and fields
Passing towns that have no names
And freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards full of rusted automobiles
Houses, farms, fields, towns. Not a besieged fort surrounded by bombs bursting in air. It’s a superior image, one that tells so much more about what America is than generic warlike imagery. And it’s a multicultural America, not perfectly perhaps, but it is multicultural, people of different ethnicities living side by side and working together.
And besides, what’s more American than automobiles? Except for maybe trains?
Singin’ Good Morning, America, how are you?
Don’t you know me, I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
And I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.
It’s a greeting to America, all of America, not this side or that side or red or blue or flyover country vs. cities, but all of us Americans. The train is calling out its greeting to you and to me.
And 500 miles – doesn’t it capture the size and scope of America? The vastness of it? And yet somehow, some way, we’re a unit, a people. It’s meaningful that we can be that. Somehow, despite how far apart we all are, we are brought together via this network of train tracks and roads and a shared culture and set of beliefs that unifies us.
And I was dealing cards with the old men in the club car
A penny a point, ain’t no one keeping score
Won’t you pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
You can feel the wheels grumbling through the floor
Even our shared vices bring us together. It’s something that really does cut across regional and cultural lines – the idea that we could sit down together as individuals and play cards and drink together and shoot the breeze and it’s so much more American than bonding over national identities.
And the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers
They ride their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel
And mothers with their babes asleep
Go rockin to the gentle beat
Just the rhythm of the rails is all they dream
The sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers – it’s an egalitarian, multicultural vision of America. And their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel? It belongs to ALL their fathers, not one more than another. Those brave, strong, hardworking men of different ethnicities, heritages, religions who came together to build the railway system of the United States, the men who laid the rails and built the trains and ran/run them – the legacy belongs to all of them.
And mothers and babies. So many anthems are male-centric, it’s touching to me that tucked away in the heart of this masculine song is a mention of motherhood and children. There is not a woman or child to be found basking in the dawn’s early light. But there is on the City of New Orleans. Just a soft moment that speaks to the reason why men sacrifice so much and work so hard, so that mothers and their children can sleep safely, rocking away in the train.
Nighttime on the City of New Orleans
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
It’s halfway home and we’ll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness rolling to the sea
And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
The old steel rails, it ain’t heard the news
The conductor sings that song again
Passengers will please refrain
This train has got the disappearing railroad blues
This stanza illustrates something about America. It changes. What it was once, it isn’t now, and while we may have nostalgia and feel bittersweet sentiment over it all, it’s the march of progress. America is not a glorious battle or a crystallized moment in time, it’s almost more a process than a nation. While the railroads once were king, they’re fading away to make room for something new. Self-driving trucks, maybe, or something. But America will carry on and still be America. We shouldn’t forget our heritage, shouldn’t turn our backs on the ways of life that brought us here but nor should we try to preserve things forever. We should acknowledge and appreciate the old even as we make way for the new.
Just singing, good night, America, how are you?
Saying don’t you know me, I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
And I’ll be gone a long long time before the day is done
It’s a great song, ok? Whether you agree that it should be the national anthem or not, I think most would agree it’s a pretty good song. But it’s the story behind the song is what truly elevates City of New Orleans to being the perfect representation of what I believe, in my heart, to be America.
Steve Goodman, the man who wrote City of New Orleans, was born in Chicago in 1948. He graduated from the same high school, in the same class as Hillary Clinton. He was Jewish and started singing as a member of the junior choir at his temple. When he was 20 years old, he found out he had terminal leukemia and decided to devote the rest of his life to music. He was dying his entire adult life, actually, literally dying, little by little. His entire musical career was spent with the specter of death over his head. And his response to that was to nickname himself “Cool Hand Leuk” and keep right on singing until he died at the age of 36.
Goodman came of age at a point in time in which folk music was probably at its pinnacle of popularity. While Goodman had met and worked with famous names like Kris Kristofferson and John Prine, his big break came when he ran into Arlo Guthrie at a bar and asked if he could play a song for him. Guthrie agreed with one condition – Goodman had to buy him a beer and could only play for as long as it took Guthrie to drink it. Goodman played City of New Orleans while Guthrie guzzled, and the rest is history.
I find the story of Steve Goodman and City of New Orleans to be so much more inspiring and American than a dude in a fort in a war putting an old drinking song to words (or maybe he was in a boat or something, looking at the fort, I can’t remember exactly). It has everything that is good and right about America. Courage in the face of overwhelming odds, folk music, beer, and a melting pot of peoples living in friendship with each other. It has Arlo Guthrie. It has Hillary, for whatever that’s worth. And it even has baseball, because Steve Goodman was a huge Chicago Cubs fan and actually wrote the song Go Cubs Go which is the official Cubs victory song and my grandma loved the Cubs so shut up, they won eventually and I just know that Grandma and Steve Goodman were hugging and jumping up and down in heaven when they did. I’m sure we could find an apple pie and an eagle in Steve Goodman’s life story if we looked hard enough. It’s awesome, it’s just an awesome story about an awesome guy who wrote an awesome song that I really love.
Seriously, it’s so much better than that bullshittery about bombs and death.
And here’s the man himself with the best version of all.