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The nation's for a song: a new, improved anthem


I promised you a new national anthem. The first challenge in writing one was to find a tune more appropriate than ours, which was, after all, an old barroom song written by a Brit around the time King George III was impolitely taxing our tea. Plus, the music is so stupidly difficult to sing that getting it right was viewed as a sobriety test, warranting another round of drinks.

My first choice was something I thought sweetly American: Stephen Foster's Oh! Susanna. Alas, it turns out the original lyrics begin this way: "I come fum Alabama wid' my banjo on my knee / I'se gwine to Loo-siana, my true lub for to see." From there, it gets a lot less racially sensitive. So, that was out.

A better choice was the traditional Oh My Darling Clementine, with which I became smitten after discovering that most of us never learned the original final stanza to this tragic song about a drowned lover. Here it is:

"How I missed her! How I missed her! / How I missed my Clementine! / Then I kissed her little sister / And forgot my Clementine."

So, that was going to be the tune, until I started to write the lyrics, jotting down the best things about America. That's when I realized that they're already compiled in one place. We already have a better national anthem; it's just never been recognized as such. It was a masterpiece written in 1789 by a short man with long hair and black tights. His name was James Madison. I'm talking about the Bill of Rights, those 10 simple guarantees of individual liberty that — unlike any chauvinistic, militaristic, jingoistic, overwrought, self-celebratory song — are truly great.

Cramming the entire Bill of Rights into a containable whole demanded that it be sung at a gallop, and so Clementine lost out to Rossini's William Tell Overture. And if you think it inappropriate that our new national anthem was written by an Italian fop about a Swiss crossbow artist, just put on a Stetson and think about that great native American Tonto and his masked friend.

Here we go:

The Star-Spangled Paper

Music by Gioachino Rossini, words by James Madison and Gene Weingarten

It's OK if you pray. You can own a gun.

You can say what you may about anyone.

You can meet in the street, you can march and strut.

Been wronged? You can sue his butt.

If you're popped by a cop, then you get a trial.

Army troops won't be cooped in your domicile,

When in jail, if there's bail, it can't be too high.

'Gainst yourself … you don't testify.

There must be reasonable cause / for cops to seize or touch your junk.

In court, you get to see and hear / their case so it you can debunk.

You'll get a jury of your peers / and even if they throw the book.

You won't be tarred or feathered or / be dangled on a butcher's hook.

Just because these / are the rights that / we are hereby / to you doling

Doesn't mean you / Don't have others / (for example, / going bowling).

Uncle Sam wants your land? Gotta pay a price!

Just one time for a crime — they can't try you twice.

You can write what you might, no restraint awaits.

Other laws … are left to the states.

That is all, it is small, but it makes us free.

It's a trust that we must keep for liberty.

So, a toast, not a boast, as we raise our cup —

Here's to us … let's not screw it up.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

The nation's for a song: a new, improved anthem 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 3:30am]
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