Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Opinion

Column: God bless America? Take it out of the ball game

I grew up listening to Kate Smith's version of God Bless America, and it may take a plunge into a mountain stream to experience something quite so shiny and invigorating. I believe that God has blessed America, but I don't need to hear that song again to remind me, especially during the seventh inning stretch of a baseball game.

Enough is enough. No one who glances at the skyline of New York City will ever forget 9/11. We no longer need Irving Berlin's hymn to remind us to honor America. A better antidote to national apathy is Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

I don't want this to sound like blasphemy. I love most patriotic music, from America the Beautiful, especially the Ray Charles version, to Stars and Stripes Forever to Okie from Muskogee to the rocking protest of Fortunate Son, to the narrative complexity of Born in the USA.

I especially love our National Anthem with its alliterative title: The Star-Spangled Banner. I love how hard it is to sing. I love the rich variety of ways that musicians and vocalists express it. My favorites include versions by Whitney Houston and Marvin Gaye, with special props to B.K. Jackson. When he was a student at Blake High School in Tampa, the young saxophonist would mesmerize the crowds at Tropicana Field with his bluesy rendition.

It's not the patriotism I protest. It's the excess. Who decided that it was a good idea to turn bleacher bums into robotic patriots? I've come to resent that disembodied voice that orders me to stand, remove my cap and listen to that song.

I've already stood and removed my cap — even with hot dog in one hand and Pepsi in the other — before the first pitch. I've already applauded with enthusiasm when the team introduces on the big screen a local military family, often showing videos of soldiers from Afghanistan expressing the fervent hope that they will be home soon. When I see a military wife or child moved to tears, I can feel the emotions brim in my own eyes.

But I don't need a booster shot of patriotism in the seventh inning. "Nothing succeeds like excess," notes Oscar Wilde, to which I would add: "Nothing succeeds like excess in deflating an honest expression of patriotism."

I'm sure some of this has to do with the song. While many refer to God Bless America as this country's unofficial national anthem, its unflinching sentimentality has attracted critics over the years, none more distinguished than folk singer Woody Guthrie. The song we know as This Land Is Your Land had an earlier title, This Land Was Made For You and Me, and an even earlier one: God Blessed America. In 1940 Guthrie penned his song as an answer to Irving Berlin's. In a photocopy of Guthrie's handwritten draft, you can track his response in the final stanza:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple

By the Relief Office I saw my people

As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if

God blessed America for me.

I do want to sing during the seventh inning stretch, but I'd prefer that great secular hymn Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Written on a New York subway by prolific lyricist Jack Norworth in 1908, it has proven its staying power, surviving two world wars, a Depression, and countless other national calamities.

You cannot find a more American tune. It celebrates our collective strength, loyalty to the home team, the exercise of commerce (even mentioning the brand name Cracker Jack), a desire to win, but an understanding of failure. It may not be a hymn or a prayer, but it offers intimations of immortality, spoken in the working class double negative: "I don't care if I never get back."

It should not take George Carlin to remind us that football is the war game, with its bombs and blitzes, played against the clock. Baseball is the timeless game, played in a park, where the aim is not territorial aggression but a search for home. As we stand and stretch, I hear in my memory the voice of Cubs announcer Harry Caray leading the crowd in song and hoping, against hope, that the Cubbies could score some runs. What's more American than that?

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. He is the author of "Writing Tools" and "How to Write Short." He can be reached at [email protected]

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