Sweet Freedom's Song: "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and Democracy in America. (Book Reviews: Diverse Topics)

By Pohly, Linda | Notes, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Sweet Freedom's Song: "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and Democracy in America. (Book Reviews: Diverse Topics)


Pohly, Linda, Notes


Sweet Freedom's Song: "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and Democracy in America. By Robert James Branham and Stephen J. Hartnett. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. [xii, 276 p. ISBN 0-19-513741-8. $29.95.] Illustrations, index.

Americans have been thin king about and singing patriotic songs more in the past several months than in the months or years that preceded II September 2001. What is the purpose of such songs, and how do they make the singer and the listener feel- or even behave? Can a song have meaning and dramatic appeal beyond its melody and surface text, touching something deep and complex? More specifically, can music function as "political persuasion" (p. 4), and can it enable transformations? These are the types of questions that Robert James Branham and Stephen Hartnett consider as they delve into the political, historical, and cultural aspects of God Save the King and, later, America or My Country 'Tis of Thee. The preface explains that the storied history of this song enabled Branham to "explore the promises, possibilities, and compromises of democracy in America" (p. vii). He did not live to see the book's completion, but he had enlisted Hartnett to finish the project. Hartnett writes that he resisted "rarified acad emic jargon and sought to produce a narrative that is clear and accessible while still honoring the awesome complexity of the materials addressed here" (p. viii). The respect that both men felt toward the song, the American nation, and democracy is evident throughout.

The authors emphasize details of the various texts that have been associated with the familiar tune. It is described as having "lyrical and musical simplicity, which enables even marginally talented poets to rewrite its lyrics without much effort, while even the tone-deaf can learn quickly to sing along with its simple tune" (p. 8). They acknowledge, however, that some composers (Lowell Mason, for example) relish a composition's simplicity as a key to its usefulness and that simple songs ( When Johnny Comes Marching Home, for example) often "served the more pressing function of voicing oppositional politics" (p. 10).

Branham and Hartnett also use American history to tackle the problem of defining patriotism, or at least to outline the issues in defining it. This is, of course, a topic still relevant in the early twenty-first century. They illuminate paradoxical and ironic new texts sung to America, such as a version from 1861 that reflects the fear of many Northerners that Britain might side with the South. Other versions (some printed in appendix A) offer expressions of criticism or dismay, raising serious questions about various political and social situations. Some people considered these texts to be as much a meaningful gesture of patriotism as a text expressing love and admiration of the nation. The authors show that a national song can be used to establish and mark a government's legitimacy at the same time that it can be used to highlight disagreements with that government's policies or actions.

As noted in the book's introduction, its five chapters proceed chronologically. In chapter 1, the authors examine the period ca. 1750--98, when England's God Save the King was being appropriated by colonists on both sides of the Revolution and then by the new Americans. Chapter 2 focuses on the 1830s and 1840s when the newly written, and now familiar, My Country 'Th of Thee text was popularized by music educators only to be altered by temperance, labor, and suffrage activists. Subsequent text versions were used by abolitionists from the 1830s through the beginning of the Civil War, as is made clear in chapter 3, to point out inconsistencies in America's offer of freedom. In chapter 4, the authors consider numerous variants of the song used between 1861 and the National Peace Jubilee in 1869, while their focus in chapter 5 is on America as a tool of political protest between 1870 and 1932. …

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