OK, just hum it

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue May 9 12:59:53 UTC 2006

>>From The Hamilton (Ont.) Spectator (May 8, 2006)

OK, just hum it

You didn't recognize the first line of the U.S. national anthem, trans-
lated into O'odham, the language of the Tohono tribe? Don't feel bad:
Two-thirds of Americans don't know all the words in English. Of the
one-third who claim they do, only 39 per cent, according to a Harris poll,
can correctly sing the phrase that follows "whose broad stripes and bright
stars" (answer: "through the perilous fight"). Written to a British tune
that spans multiple octaves, Francis Scott Key's national anthem has
always presented a vocal as well as a verbal challenge. Nevertheless, it
has inspired patriotic immigrants and native Americans to produce Finnish,
German and Yiddish ("O'zog kenstu senh ...")  translations as well as
O'odham. As it happens, there are already several Spanish versions,
including one written in 1919 and several published on the State
Department's website.

There are other kinds of interpretations, too: Jimi Hendrix is only one of
many pop stars who have riffed on the tune, much as artists such as Jasper
Johns have found new ways to use the American flag. Converting national
symbols into new art forms is an American tradition, which is why the
objections to a new Spanish-language recording of the national anthem --
hard to take seriously at first -- are rapidly ceasing to be funny.
Perhaps President Bush was speaking from his gut when he said, "I think
the national anthem ought to be sung in English." It seems more likely
that he was speaking from the part of his brain that calculates how many
Republicans dislike his immigration policy.

We can't imagine any excuse for the silly resolution introduced by
Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, demanding that "statements
of national unity" be read or sung in English -- never mind that Spanish
teachers have been teaching their American students the Pledge of
Allegiance in Spanish for years. Are Americans really so insecure that
they can't bear to hear their anthem sung in Spanish? We suggest that
readers take a moment to listen to Nuestro Himno -- a respectful,
recognizable, stirring version of a familiar song - before making up their


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