Make the Blues America’s National Anthem
Recently my wife Janet and I splurged on tickets to a spellbinding concert by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The music was memorable, as was an offhand comment by orchestra leader and trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis. Introducing a blues number, Marsalis suggested that the blues should be America’s national anthem.
The audience laughed. But I took this as a serious and brilliant suggestion. It’s worth some discussion.
The blues is a uniquely American (at first solely African American) musical form. Unlike minstrel tunes and cakewalks, it wasn’t easily hijacked by the dominant culture to parody and demean African Americans; nor was it, like ragtime, adapted by Blacks from popular Euro-American dance forms like the march or the two-step. Instead, it erupted directly as a raw response to degrading conditions forced upon resilient, creative people by the deeply racist society that had kidnapped and enslaved their ancestors. In both form and expression, the blues was startlingly original. And, in its first iterations, there was almost nothing commercial about it.
The blues began to emerge in the South, probably around the time of the Civil War. However, an exact year or place is impossible to pin down. It began as rural, improvised vocal music that invited simple instrumental accompaniment. It quickly caught hold and flourished, persisting alongside spirituals and, later, ragtime. In 1909, W.C. Handy copyrighted what is often cited as the first blues composition, “The Memphis Blues,” but it was not written strictly in the form of a blues, and was preceded by Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Blues,” composed in 1902. During the 1920s, blues singer-composers like Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey were so popular that the New York-based commercial tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley churned out dozens of songs with the word “blues” in their titles — songs that, in form and spirit, had little to do with real blues.
The musical form of the blues is simplicity itself: three chords spread over 12 bars in 4/4 time, with lots of repetitions (there are also 8- and 16-bar blues forms, and extra chords can be judiciously added to provide more musical variety). In its essence, the blues is so uncomplicated that any teenage kid with a guitar can get in on the action, as three British lads named Clapton, Page and Richards did in the early 1960s, going on to make fortunes that eluded the Black American blues artists they were imitating.
Why would the blues make a great national anthem?
First, almost anything would be better than our current anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is hard to sing and has lyrics that only a historian can relate to. Hardly anyone really likes it, though most Americans, when asked, say they’d prefer to stick with it rather than change to a different song.
Many of the oft-suggested alternatives are characterized by corny triumphalism or smarmy patriotism (“America the Beautiful,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” or “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean”). The best of the front-runners is undoubtedly Woody Guthrie’s folksy “This Land Is Your Land.”
The blues, however, has a lot going for it as a long shot candidate. Blues may be America’s greatest cultural gift to the world; if not, it’s certainly on the shortlist. It was the key contributor to the origins of jazz, rock and roll, funk, soul, R&B and hip hop, and it deeply influenced country and western, and bluegrass music. Without blues, it’s fair to say, there might be little recognizably American music. Blues embodies human resilience in the face of adversity and suffering. It’s therefore the perfect musical tonic for a nation founded on slavery and genocide (Native Americans have the incentive to play the blues with genuine feeling; check out Cecil Gray’s “Native Blues”), and a country of extreme economic inequality whose fossil-fueled luck is starting to run out.
Indeed, Americans will have plenty of reasons to sing the blues as this century wears on — as their nation’s oil and gas production inevitably declines; as climate change worsens droughts, wildfires and megastorms; as decades of unsustainable economic growth turn to decades of contraction; as mountains of government, corporate and consumer debt come due; and as festering resentments (urban/rural, racial and regional) further erode an already fraying set of norms that enable political and legal systems to function. The key to national survival will be a collective willingness to share the pain (instead of blaming scapegoats), celebrate our common humanity and build a new culture that’s both ecological and humane. I can think of no music more fitting as a soundtrack for that enterprise than the blues.
One argument against the blues as America’s national anthem is simply that blues is more of a musical genre than a specific composition. Should a particular blues song be proposed to Congress?
If so, then first consideration should go to the works of Bessie Smith, who wrote and performed many of the most popular blues ballads of the last century. (My personal pick would be her “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues.”) Then there’s B.B. King’s “Every Day I Have the Blues” and Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail.” For boomers and rockers, a top choice might be Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.”
The possibilities are nearly endless. But why should we be required to choose? Maybe each official occasion could open with a different blues song. Of course, the chances of Marsalis’s suggestion being taken up by officials in Washington are virtually nil. But I still dream of a World Series game kicking off with a rousing, full-throated chorus of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” In that fantasy future, America might actually redeem itself.Your support matters…
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