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Rousing renditions

11 July 2014


THERE are advantages to having a boring national anthem. We in the UK do not have to stand around for minutes on end as an over-ambitious chanteuse croons endless ornamental fantasias around the melody of "God save the Queen". But spare a thought for our cousins across the Atlantic, who, at the start of every major sporting event, have to endure "The Star-Spangled Banner", gilded to the point of collapse by wannabe-Whitney Houstons.

The problem is, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a pretty good tune. Too long, of course; and with a range far too wide to be suited to crowd singing. But for the solo singer, it is the ultimate power ballad; and the assertion of power - cultural, political, and military - is what this song has also come to represent.

In O Say Can You See? (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Erica Wagner provided a potted history of the song, as well as a survey of interpretations from the mainstream to the counter-cultural; ,eginning and ending with the Jimi Hendrix version, in which the rockets and bombs of the lyrics are conjured up through the frenzied timbres of the electric guitar.

Nobody had a good word to say about the poetry of Francis Scott Key; but the tune has a much better pedigree, originally known in Britain as the tune "To Anacreon in Heaven", by John Stafford Smith. In its ascent to national-anthem status it had to fight off several contenders. How differently we might perceive American foreign policy if its totemic song was, for instance, "Yankee Doodle".

How we, as liberal Europeans, regard the United States is mirrored in the way we respond to the concept of "the land of the free" and "home of the brave". When do "civil liberties" turn into degenerate libertarianism? The case of Carey McWilliams, as told in Outlook (World Service, Thursday of last week) is one that walks the tightrope between the two; for Mr McWilliams, from Fargo, North Dakota, is the first blind person in the US to hold a gun licence. In fact, he owns a small arsenal, including an AK-47, and is happy to admit to "packing" more or less all the time. Land of the brave - or the foolhardy, one might reasonably ask.

Depending on your point of view, this is either "God bless America" for its progressive attitude, or it is another case of the loopy US gun laws. Mr McWilliams came across as a nice young man: good to his family, and level-headed - except for the time when he pulled his gun on a car driver who was bothering him; and the fact that he has been dealing with "confidence issues". But he prom-ises never to pull a trigger unless he is at point-blank range.

Somehow, I don't think Mr McWilliams is going to be voting for Hillary Clinton, if, as expected, she stands for President next time round. On Woman's Hour (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), she was saying nothing, preferring to talk about her new book, Hard Choices.

Mrs Clinton is adept at product placement, and, in every answer to Jenni Murray, she managed to fit in those title words. By the time it came to the Lewinsky question, we might have all joined in: Forgiveness is (all together now!) a hard choice.

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