Editorial: Singing About America in Many Tongues

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday May 02, 2006

A couple of weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, I attended a concert which was a benefit for African-American college students. It was organized by Hope Briggs, then just another struggling soprano, though she’s now a featured artist with the San Francisco Opera and other major companies. She had put together a bouquet of young classical singers who contributed their performances, many but not all of them African-Americans like herself.  

The concert, which had been scheduled for months, took place in a school auditorium somewhere on the Peninsula. It was during the period when people were still afraid to leave home, still reluctant to cross bridges, so the audience was modest in size, mostly, like me, friends and relatives of the singers. The music, a varied program featuring opera arias, was a blessed relief from the tensions of the day.  

After each singer had taken her turn, Hope brought them all to the stage for a final bow. Then, as they stood in a row in front of the curtain, she led them all, and the audience, in singing one more selection: “America the Beautiful.” I don’t think of myself as a sentimental person, or as being particularly patriotic, but seeing those beautiful young people up there, hearing their lovely voices singing about the beauty of our homeland and its people at a time when we felt that all we loved was in danger, moved me to shed more than a few tears.  

I remembered that evening this last weekend when with much fanfare a Spanish translation of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the official U.S. national anthem, was launched on Spanish language radio. It got the predictable shocked reaction from the expected people, including an emphatic George W. Bush. Blasphemy! Real Americans speak English!  

What it reminded me is what a really inappropriate song “The Star-Spangled Banner” is for a nation like ours, in any language. In the first place, it’s virtually unsingable for most of us, with those screechy high notes. And it’s martial, a relic of a long-ago and little remembered war, before this country became as big and as varied as it is now, when the flag was spangled with many fewer stars. The music was probably written by a British composer, and the poetry is weak.  

“America the Beautiful” would be a much better choice for a multilingual national song. The first verse, with its spacious skies and purple mountains, uplifts everybody and offends nobody. (The quality of the poetry does fall off in later stanzas, but we don’t have to use those.) And while we’re translating, there are a number of other wonderful songs which we could use to express love of home and fellow citizens.  

The best words, hands down, can be found in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” once called “The Negro National Anthem.” They were written by a good writer, James Weldon Johnson, and are both thoughtful and inspiring: 


Lift every voice and sing, till earth and  

Heaven ring, 

Ring with the harmonies of liberty… 


African-Americans might not be willing to share their anthem with the whole country, but since some African-Americans of Caribbean origin speak Spanish as their first language, there should be no objection to translation. The music is stirring, excellent for group singing. 

Or perhaps it would be better to start with a song in Spanish, and translate it for others to sing in English. One beloved expression of love of country is “De Colores,” learned by most California school children, which starts with a verse praising the colors of the countryside in spring, the birds and the rainbow. It’s been taken as a metaphor for diversity, and many have added subsequent verses, some in praise of the people of different colors who are found on the earth. Since it’s a folk song, pride of authorship hasn’t gotten in the way of adaptation to multicultural patriotic sentiments, or of English versions, of which there are several.  

Woody Guthrie’s populist “This Land is Your Land,” in a folk vein, is also learned by most school children, and is sung even by many who would disagree with its radical author’s politics if they knew about them. People make up verses for it all the time. Translating it into Spanish wouldn’t cause any flap. It’s surprising that no one has done it yet, or maybe they have.  

And why limit ourselves to Spanish and English? Only English-speaking U.S. citizens are proud of speaking just one language. If those guys are touchy about the SSB, let’s just leave it off the program. Many Americans speak many languages, and other patriotic songs could be translated back and forth to accommodate all singers.  

What about adding a French anthem, for example? “La Marseillaise” offers stirring music and inspiring words. (Perhaps too inspiring: politically savvy French friends tell me those parts about “impure blood running in the furrows” have lost favor in some circles in France.)  

But weren’t we mad at the French about something? Remember “freedom fries”? What was that all about? 

Oh yes. We were mad at the French for warning us it might be a mistake to go into Iraq. For hinting or even saying outright that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Maybe it’s time for our national leaders, George W. in particular, to learn just one little French phrase, even if he doesn’t like the SSB in Spanish. For his next meeting with French leaders, perhaps he could practice “Excusez-moi, j’ai fait une erreur.”