Oh Say Can You See? Or Sing?

David W. Stowe

I haven't figured out a great seasonal angle on this--maybe that we will be seeing many renditions of the Anthem during the slew of bowl games that lie ahead--but hopefully it's not too early to mention a major anniversary looming in the new year: the bicentennial of the SSB.
A colleague down the road in Ann Arbor, music professor Mark Clague, has spearhead a campaign (and non-profit foundation) to raise awareness of the national anthem, including an Indiegogo campaign that has raised more than $13,000 to provide recordings and songbooks for K-12 students.

The latest post to the website actually addresses another song, "God Bless America," which appeared on radio for the first time 75 years ago. Author Sheryl Kaskowitz, who published a book on Irving Berlin's ubiquitous song, writes:

Understanding the history of songs can deepen our understanding of history writ large, providing students with another lens into American culture at specific moments.

But songs do more than this—they travel with us into the present, their meanings shifting over time. In his book Music as Social Life, Tom Turino calls this process “semantic snowballing”: as a song is sung again and again in different contexts over time, new associations are added while older ones are retained so that a song becomes more than just its words and melody—it becomes a powerful symbol of all of these accumulated associations. I trace this phenomenon in my book about “God Bless America,” but we can see it with a multitude of other songs. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, singing “The Star Spangled Banner”—with its reference to a siege on American forces during the War of 1812—took on an added significance, as one observer described in 1942:

Never has it been played and sung more often in so brief a period, never has it been heard by more people at once. . . . It opens every public gathering; the opera and the football game, the play, the fight and the dance, the banquet and the town meeting. Easily forgotten in days of peace . . . it now becomes, all of a sudden, a tremendously precious and important thing. (L.H. Robbins, “And the Song Is Still Here,” The New York Times, 4 January 1942.)
Students may have their own associations and memories of a particular song, allowing them to connect their personal experiences with the history of another era. Songs can be powerful tools for making history come alive in the classroom.


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