Happy 4th of July! Today you’re almost certainly going to hear America’s national anthem, and maybe get a chance to sing it:
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
The topic? War, specifically the War of 1812. Originally a poem titled “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” penned by anti-abolitionist lawyer Francis Scott Key, it was later set to the music of a popular British drinking song.
There are three more verses (including this gem: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave”), but they’re rarely sung.
Why have a song about war as our national anthem, and not, say, “America, the Beautiful”?
Keep in mind that America:
- was founded in war (the American Revolution)
- gained the bulk of its territory, including California, through war (the Indian Wars and the Mexican-American war)
- resolved the issue of slavery by war (the Civil War)
- became the world’s richest and most powerful country thanks to the bloodiest war in history (World War II)
- Has been at war more often than not throughout its history
- Spends more taxpayer dollars than the next seven countries combined on war.
The fireworks you see on July 4 aren’t necessarily a reference to war (they date back at least to Philadephia’s Independence Day in 1777), but you can see the resemblance to “the rockets’ red glare.”
If like me, you’re starting to suspect that war might not be the healthiest founding myth for a modern democracy, I offer you an alternative: California.
California’s founding myth comes from a fictional island in a chivalric romance novel written in 1510 (how’s that for old, America?). When Spanish explorers sighted the real thing, they said, aha, it’s the island of California! Okay, California isn’t actually an island, but we do have strong women who do what they want, and if we don’t have literal gryphons, we certainly have our share of unpredictable weirdness.
And California’s “national” anthem? I give you the official state song, “I Love you California”:
I love you, California, you’re the greatest state of all.
I love you in the winter, summer, spring and in the fall.
I love your fertile valleys; your dear mountains I adore.
I love your grand old ocean and I love your rocky shores.
And on it goes, a chorus and three more stanzas of stunning landmarks, plus a bit of agriculture. The Missions, the redwoods, Yosemite, fruit, even California wine: they’re all in there. It’s like “America the Beautiful,” but more concrete, and less pushy (Must we “Confirm thy soul in self-control”? Does America really have “alabaster cities… undimmed by human tears”? Wouldn’t that be a little creepy?).
The word “love” appears once in the title and 16 times in the song. Patriotism is, after all, love of your homeland; you literally will not find a more patriotic song.
And yet hardly any Californian knows it!
Let’s change that. This July 4, in addition to enjoying picnics, barbecues, fireworks, and/or parades (or not, but I don’t begrudge anyone a good time), set aside a little time for some real patriotism and learn the state song.
Below are some videos to get you started. If you’re feeling really inspired, please post a video of yourself singing the first verse, with the hashtag #iloveyoucalifornia.
Here’s a version with lyrics, in the style of an Independence Day band:
This was handed out as a 45 record at the 1964 Republican Convention at the Cow Palace, just south of San Francisco.
This is the best modern-day choral rendition I could find. Ironically, from out-of-state.
We love you too, Prince Frederick, MD.
Here are some folks in Butte County, CA singing the state song:
Here’s a recording from 1921 by Harry Reser. Public domain, baby!
The music and lyrics are also public domain, so you can pretty much do whatever you want with them. Like this band does, out under the California Live Oak trees:
Or this guy, at least until 0:28 when he starts signing about his Jeep (it was part of a contest ultimately culminating in this commercial):
Seriously though, I would pay money to hear his rendition of the entire song.
And finally, cute kids:
Sometimes their words are a bit hard to make out, but you don’t have to, because by now you know the lyrics!