Monday, July 4th, you'll celebrate Independence Day. We say you'll celebrate it because we will have already done our celebrating on the proper day... July 2. That's the day the Continental Congress voted to tell King George III to kiss their grits. It's true that the Declaration of Independence is dated July 4th, but even that is meaningless, as John Hancock and other delegates didn't sign the document until August 2. Hell, some members didn't sign until years later.
Robert Wuhl said, "The history of America is based on a true story," and no truer statement has ever been made about our country. There's little meaningful difference between the popular recollection of the Declaration's signing and the more boring and bureaucratic reality, but it is slightly off.
It's one thing to scream "No taxation without representation," and another to understand that we had representation in the form of Ben Franklin, who was really, really bad at representing the colonists to the crown. Those taxes, by the by, were to pay for a war we started with the French, were mostly lifted the minute we started complaining, and were barely collected anyway.
Does any of this change the fact that America is a noble experiment in democracy that generally becomes freer and more enlightened every year? Not really, but we feel it's important to recognize that things we hold as sacred American institutions are not always what they seem.
This is true even in the songs that most represent this country.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" didn't become our official national anthem until 1931, though the Navy had used it as an official song since 1889. Now, it is synonymous with Old Glory, baseball and everything that we as Americans stand for.
The song has the Superman of origin stories. A lawyer named Francis Scott Key dashed off the poem while watching the British pound Maryland's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. The poem not only birthed or national anthem, but also gave us the national motto, "In God We Trust," a line from the rarely sung fourth stanza.
In a sense we have to thank the British doubly for the song. Not only did their attack inspire Key, the melody was theirs anyway. Originally, the tune was a drinking song written by British composer John Stafford Smith called "The Anacreontic Song." And when we say it was a drinking song, we really mean it - the ability or inability to successfully sing a stanza of the tune was used as a sobriety test.
Like we said, "The Star-Spangled Banner" didn't become the official national anthem until the 1930s. Before that, we used a variety of tunes like "Hail Columbia" and, more often, "My Country 'Tis of Thee." The song lyrics for "My Country 'Tis of Thee" were penned by Samuel Francis Smith in 1831. As for the melody...
You may have noticed that "My Country 'Tis of Thee" is exactly the same song as "God Save the Queen," Britain's national anthem. This actually makes some sort of sense if you think about it. We stole a country, might as well steal a national anthem while we're at it. Plus, you have to remember that until John Tyler, all our presidents were born British subjects, anyway.
However, that's not where Smith got the melody. While studying at Andover Theological Seminary, he was asked to either translate some lyrics from a German schoolbook or write his own. He chose the latter when he took a fancy to a melody from Muzio Clementi's "Symphony No. 3."
Clementi stole it from Bach, who stole it from Handel, who stole it from Purcell, who stole it from Dr. John Bull.
"Hail to the Chief" is the president's entrance music. It's the song that you're supposed to be hearing in your head when he walks by instead of the Cure's "Killing an Arab" or possibly the Ramones' "Spider-Man Theme." The first time it was used to hurrah a chief executive was for none other than Pappy Washington himself, who was thoroughly unimpressed, what with his being dead at the time. Andrew Jackson holds the distinction of being the first living president to have it played in his honor.
For the song we have to thank a British violinist and the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott. In 1819, Scott wrote a poem called the Lady of the Lake that was about James VI of Scotland. The poem was hugely influential, and is pretty much responsible for the whole Scottish clan tartan thing that is so popular at the Renaissance Festival. Also inspired by the poem? The KKK practice of burning crosses.
Two years after it was published, the poem was turned into several successful plays, one of which included the song "Hail to the Chief" by James Sanderson, a British violinist and conductor of the Surrey Theatre orchestra. The melody is set to the lyrics of a boat song sung in the second canto.
It's the first song we learn in elementary school, and no one has ever explained to us what macaroni has to do with American patriotism. Still, just humming the song is often enough to get any random passers by caught up in the revolutionary spirit with unabashed fervor. It's also the state song of Connecticut.
That's nice and all, but the song was basically a giant mockery by the British towards bumpkin colonists. Remember that war we started that was mentioned at the beginning of the article? That was the French and Indian War, and after we started it the British sent over troops to clear up the mess. Most officers looked down severely on the colonists, who they considered yokels, and "Yankee Doodle" is basically them singing about it.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Of course, once the revolution started and we began winning, American soldiers took up the song in defiance, using the catchy tune as an anthem to mock the mockers. It's kind of like when ICP recorded "Slim Anus," but with less being pointless.
Ed. Note: "Macaroni" was a style of Italian dress popular in Great Britain around the time "Yankee Doodle" was written, says earlyamerica.com. Happy Fourth, everyone.