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The national anthem

'The time of the singing of birds is come and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land,' says the Bible.

Well, the turtle slides like an armoured car across our back road, but in our part of the country, at least, he's mum. But talk about the singing of birds – this is the time, and has been since the spring of the mockingbird, the preposterous show-off of the tribe. Since we live on a point or peninsula that's a bird sanctuary, our terrace is his Carnegie Hall. His repertory goes through a score of species from doves to prothonotary warblers. He starts at dawn, six choruses for each species being mocked, and then shifts to another air, and on and on, well beyond the dusk.

I should like some bird doctor to tell me about the construction of the mockingbird's throat for whatever afflictions he suffers from, sore throat is not one of them. Lately he's been making such a racket that conversation, human conversation, turns into a shouting match. At which point, somebody shouts, 'Shut up!' There's a pause. Silence for about 15 seconds, then he starts mimicking us.

I mean it! Look him up in the Encyclopedia Britannica which says, 'The common mockingbird of North America' – by the way he's precisely named Mimus Polyglottos, a mime with many tongues – 'the common mockingbird of North America is most abundant in the southern United States, but the eastern, north-eastern sub species appears to be a better mimic and is capable of miming man-made sounds.'

I tried the other day reciting the poem that's inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, the opening line that is that school children know better than the national anthem, 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free'. I didn't spout it in that sort of monotone, but gave it a little resonance, a tune, such as might have come from the cavernous mouth of the late Ralph Richardson.

Well, the little guy had a plucky go at it, but then took a breather and went back to imitating Bob White.

Mention of the national anthem reminds me that there's a powerful move which has reached the Congress to do something about the National Anthem – indeed, to change it.

On the way to the BBC to do my talk last week, I heard a rather splendid band a block or two away and pretty soon came on it on the steps of St Patrick's Cathedral. It was an all-girl band and was surrounded by an admiring crowd of lunchtime office workers. In the wake of a shower of applause, a big man held up a megaphone and announced that the all-girl band from Sweden would end its little concert with our national anthem. A pause, an expectant rustle. The shining brass went up to the lips and they played 'God Save the Queen'.

This must have come as a faint surprise to the older folk present, but I could see from the faces of the young that they were completely baffled. In fact, the Swedish all-girl band was playing, under whose instructions I can't guess, 'My country, 'Tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing'. It is, always was, sung to the same tune as 'God Save the Queen', and thereby hangs a comic tale.

'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' is very rarely heard these days, though right into the 1930s, it was played as often as 'The Star-Spangled Banner' as an alternative national anthem. Indeed, one of the first shocks I had on coming to this country in 1932 was to hear that the American national anthem was, as such, only one year old, for the country had gone, if you count from 1776, 155 years without a national anthem – a curious fact that none of us, I think, would attribute to a country as frenetically patriotic as the United States.

It came about this way. In the 1750s, when the French colonists started to build forts along the Allegheny River and down to the Ohio, what they were doing was securing their hold on middle America and giving notice that they were here to stay. But their fortifications intruded into country claimed by the Virginians and the big war that broke out between the French and the British was a war for nothing less than the ownership of the whole north-eastern part of North America, including Canada. As we all know, the French empire in North America crumbled and collapsed when General James Wolfe defeated the French and forced them to surrender Quebec.

Now, during the war, a British army physician visiting Pennsylvania was so amused to see the bedraggled troops of a Yankee force in retreat from a rough encounter with the French that he improvised some nonsense lyrics, 'Yankee Doodle Went to Town', to an English tune. It was written to mock the Yankees and was taken up by the British troops fighting, it has to be said, alongside them. It's an early warning signal that the native Americans, the Yankees, while being grateful for the help of the Brits, as they call them, in thrashing the French, didn't feel much more affection for them than they did for the detested enemy.

So, 'Yankee Doodle' was a British song mocking the sloppy Americans. But, wouldn't you know, it took barely another 20 years for the Americans to take over the song as their very own and during the revolution, the War of Independence, it became the favourite Yankee marching song and the unofficial national anthem for about the next 40 years.

Then in 1812 there was another war with, against, the British – the last one, I'm happy to say. Now there arrives on the musical historical scene a young Baltimore lawyer, Francis Scott Key. He was the head of a commission sent out from the Chesapeake Bay to secure the release of an American doctor who was being held prisoner in a British ship offshore. The British responded by launching an attack on the coastal American fort. The battle raged for two days and nights and at the end of it, the British fleet sailed out to sea and the American flag still fluttered over Fort McHenry.

All this was watched by Commissioner Key and he was so moved by the battle that he composed a set of joyful, if belligerent, verses on the back of an envelope, 'Oh say can you see, by the dawn's early light...' Next day back in Baltimore, Key had the verses printed as a broadside and he set them to an English tune. It became known and sung everywhere as 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and remained the unofficial national anthem for over a century.

But, in the meantime, another competitor had appeared. A young theological student in Massachusetts who was also a minor poet was leafing through some old music books on what he recalled as 'a dismal day in February' 1832. He was looking for a tune to set to some verses intended for a children's choir and he came on a German song, 'Heil dir im Siegerkranz', which was plainly patriotic and he was so taken with the simple and natural movement of the music that he decided he'd do it over as an American patriotic song.

According to him, he seized a scrap of waste paper – I don't know why it's always an envelope or waste paper that's used for patriotic speeches or songs – anyway, he wrote 'My country, 'Tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing'. No one was more shocked than this young parson to be accused, later on, of being pro-British for he hadn't the slightest idea that the tune of the German song was the tune of 'God Save the King'.

However, the tune and the new words, first sung in Boston by a children's choir, overcame this slight, was immensely popular through the Civil War and ever afterwards was the hymn of choice at patriotic rallies, memorials, funerals and other solemn events where 'The Star-Spangled Banner' might have sounded a little too cocky and jolly.

Well, that takes us through to 1931. At any big rally, concert, public meeting, you never knew which was going to be played, 'The Star-Spangled Banner' or 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee'. During the winter of 1930-31 when the country was sinking into the depths of the Depression, there was some brave whistling in the graveyard by congressmen, specially of German, Polish, Russian, Czech origins in the middle west who wanted to go public with their belief, or longing to believe, that America could pull itself out of the pit with no help from Europe, least of all from Britain.

And this campaign soon translated itself into a motion to have done with an anthem that carried the embarrassment of being sung to 'God Save the King'. So in March 1931' by act of Congress, Francis Scott Key's 'The Star-Spangled Banner' was declared the first national anthem of the United States. Never mind that that tune had been written in the long ago by a Briton.

And so it has remained, officially that is. But more and more, in the past, I'd say 20 years, big national occasions have been being saluted by one or other of two later patriotic numbers. 'America the Beautiful' and Irving Berlin's 'God Bless America', which was originally written in 1918 and laid aside, but handed over 20 years later for the late Kate Smith to sing at what turned out to be the last peacetime armistice celebration in this country before the Second World War.

'God Bless America' became, on the eve of that war, an almost compulsory introduction to national gatherings of any sort. In 1940, both the Democrats and the Republicans used it as the theme song of their presidential nominating conventions. In the late 1950s, a national poll recorded a substantial number of Americans who wanted to have Berlin's song replace 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and, today, there are still a lot of Americans who feel the same way. But there's an equally powerful movement to legitimise 'America the Beautiful', which I noticed at the Statue of Liberty celebrations was played to the exclusion of the national anthem.

The objections to 'The Star-Spangled Banner' are that the words are about a forgotten battle and that the tune has a 13-note vocal span which lacerates the vocal chords of everybody but a Caruso or a Melba. In short, the song has words nobody can remember to a tune nobody can sing.

The newly assembled Congress means to do something about it. I'd like it to be 'God Bless America' because our mockingbird already knows it. And then, if it is to be Irving Berlin's 'God Bless America', wouldn't it be nice if it happened in the nick of time. The old man will be 99 next May.

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC

Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.