Deconstructing a Nation through Its Own Song

Deconstructing a Nation through Its Own Song


“O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” claims the instantly recognizable last line to each stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When hands are placed over hearts reverence, who is this anthem for, and what does it represent for our present? I proceed cautiously because reconstructing the national anthem lends itself to a sense of discomfort, in the wake of political statements such as Colin Kapernick’s kneeling, to a song so ingrained and untouched in American history. Doing so, however, reveals theoretical and critical questions about our country’s history through a musical foundation. I lend my imagination to the national anthem by arranging and recording each of its four stanzas for violin, in a way that recognizes the work of enslaved composers, Negro spirituals, and women’s domesticity, and places the song in relation to current political campaign songs and police violence. By thinking about the use of rhythm, lyrics, and techniques of classical music compared to other styles, what seems a pursuit of solo musical exploration becomes a collective ode to imagination. In these recordings, some elements are deliberately constructed and others are rooted in improvisation. I hear these works in my own way but have no doubt others will listen differently from technical, political, and cultural relevances. Black people make up less than 2 percent of orchestral ensembles in the United States, and personally having been involved in them for nearly a lifetime, thinking through these creations has felt both comfortable and extremely foreign. There is at once something beautiful about the lyrical unification associated with the national anthem and other patriotic songs including “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” that feel so familiar. But this “land of the free and home of the brave” is honored by a silence not long enough to bring justice to our history. It is critical to make known the musical voices of slavery, because today’s racial injustices persist against the described ideals of the nation in song. 

Political campaign songs are valuable elements in connecting with the public, strengthening a candidate’s message through music that can be attributed to cultural popularities of the time. Through their lyrical message, “campaign songs acquire their structure and meaning from their situation at the juncture of the American popular music industry and the organization of political campaigns in U.S. electoral politics.” 1 Thus, choosing one that appeals to the American people is a critical step in spreading a message and general emotion of unification. The shift from more “traditional” campaign music to songs chosen from heightened mass media and into pop culture distinguishes yet also perpetuates messages of who the American people are and should be. Classical composers such as Beethoven and Dvorak can be traced to political themes of their works, but I am most struck by the way emotion in particular is translated in classical music. 2 Thinking through the deconstructions of the song as a violinist has also presented an opportunity to think about the places music brings us to in history. What is the real function of an anthem in the United States? What kind of music brings political messaging and/or revolution? And what parts of a song matter when distributed widely in the public for a cause?

It was in the election of 1800 where campaign songs were first used in a presidential election.3 John Adams’s campaign song, “Adams and Liberty,” was written with individualized lyrics during his bid for president and later became the tune of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Though it can be noted that while Adams’s values of bravery and protection for the country “are all great ideals to have associated with a candidate, they are not in reference to anything in particular Adams had done for the country.” (Schoening et al. 8). Nonetheless, using this song as a framework for the project not only represents the history of campaign songs but also bridges its function to the present discussion about the national anthem. In the ways Colin Kapernick’s kneeling during the anthem has sparked widespread dialogue, the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often considered the black national anthem, also relates to the theoretical explorations of music.4 A song’s relation to a nation, communities, and their people is constantly being reimagined. 

The first stanza of the national anthem, widely sung by the American people, stands on its own. My reimagining of the national anthem strips the emphasis on lyrics to focus particularly on rhythmic structure in relation to a history of Black-produced music. I’m interested in how the customary use of song and its internal rhythm may distort how we understand their operations as political tools, and making drastic changes to their bones allows for this reconsideration. Keeping the structure of the first stanza in a clean cut solo recording was important to me when thinking about how to approach the following stanzas, which most people cannot easily recite.

The second stanza is dedicated to Tom Wiggins, a blind and autistic man born into slavery in Georgia in 1849. When he and his parents were purchased by General John Bethune a year later, Wiggins’s inability to work led him to the piano, where by age eight he was performing and composing regularly. 5 Wiggins’s songs are a fascinating exploration of “a slave narrative from the perspective of a physically and cognitively disabled person.”6 Much like Beethoven, who cut off the legs of his piano to feel the sound when struggling with deafness, Wiggins’s work discerns itself through rhythmic structure that moves the piece forward while being a consistent baseline. I’m particularly moved by his composition “Battle of Manassas” which features a beautiful melody in the right hand balanced by the consistent drumming of the left. Composed when he was fifteen years of age, we hear bells, whistles, and many other nods to the sounds in his everyday life. Being that Wiggins was blind, much of his work depended on noises that could be repeated to form a consistent rhythm to accompany the piece. Nonetheless, Wiggins was taken around the United States by his masters for performances starting at the age of eight, still making the family wealthy from profits. Even after the Civil War, Wiggins was indentured to the Bethune family who kept the income from tours up until John Bethune’s death. Despite emancipation, Wiggins was taken by John’s ex-wife, Eliza, to whom he stayed with as a performer until his own death at 59 years of age.7

I draw inspiration from the physical texture of Wiggins’s work in mine, along with the balance of rhythmic consistency and a unique storytelling voice. Like the opening drumming sequence of “Battle of Manassas,” the four-count taps throughout my recording of the anthem’s second stanza bring another element to the composition. I value being able to create work with my hands, making this baseline by using the backboard of the violin and striking it in the center where the hollowness is the most round because of the air holes. This pattern also works in direct conjunction with the same rhythmic nod that opens the piece, though when they overlap they are stimulating on off beats, meaning they appear one after another instead of on top of each other. The technique of repeating a rhythm throughout the whole recording is in reference to Wiggins’s stabilization of a baseline for memory, as someone hard of seeing. My primary focus while playing in relation to the work of Tom Wiggins was the technical constructions of the violin. In my recording you hear tremolo, or a rushing of the bow, trills, slurs, and even one key change. At 01:50, I break the minor key and raise an E to be played in a major tone, bringing an interruption to the dynamic of the progression. Wiggins also does this so craftily when shifting “The Battle of Manassas” into very bright odes (04:49) and then interrupts them with darker and heavier chords that clearly protrude the classical emotions associated with odes. The variation in emotion and rootedness of his playing in physical mannerisms makes Wiggins’s art wonderfully unique. 

The third stanza is inspired by Spirituals, which translate “deeply meaningful, archetypically human experiences, relevant not only to the specific circumstances of slavery but also to women and men struggling with issues of justice, freedom, and spiritual wholeness in all times and places.”8 I’ve chosen in particular “Wade in the Water,” which I have seen sung so many ways, but is most importantly a song of resistance. Because escaping slaves learned that by walking through water the dogs could not smell them, the phrase “wade in the water” became a code on the journey to freedom. We can also think about the geographical mobility where “waterways were boundaries between the freedom and enslavement” in the escape from South to North.9 As a code song used by Harriet Tubman in the Underground Railroad, singing “Wade in the water/ God’s gonna trouble the water” became a message of direction towards freedom. Spirituals also have been passed down orally through generations, and especially in “Wade in the Water” does this storytelling voice come out of its singer. Again like the work of Tom Wiggins, “it is the rhythm—the primary characteristic of African music—that remains the key characteristic of the Spiritual.” 10 Singing as a form of resistance not only provided means to freedom but continues to be a means of revolution in our current world. Whose words do we listen to and what do they mean? 

Produced in inspiration of proximity to water as a trail to freedom, in the background of my recording of the third stanza is a blowing sound that ruffles and picks up every couple beats. Done by blowing across the opening of a water bottle, where the echo rings on the rim, this sound becomes most resonant at the end of the piece where there are only rings of the plucking. Having it underlay the majority of the piece, however, alludes to the sensation of being on a boat or wading in water. The abruptness of the blowing takes on a more aggressive tone that also contrasts with the preaching of the song, stirring an imbalance and resistance in the trek to freedom itself. Because of their structure, “many spirituals are repetitive and easily extended,” hence the reconstruction of the same pattern of the spiritual that carries throughout the recording starting from the beginning. I imagine the clapping to be like footsteps, especially at 03:38, when it finally syncs up with the same rhythms of the playing and reaches a higher pitched sound with more urgency. The texture of this piece is the most diverse of the four, including both clean-cut diction and agonizing extensions of notes. This balance can be translated to the secrecy of code songs like “Wade in the Water,” where messages must represent the agency of escape without evoking the suspicions of the master. As a violinist and also a listener, this stanza reveals how a heightened attention to rhythm can drastically change the way in which a song represents a nation. I have not changed a single note of the original song, but merely played with flow in terms of a spiritual to bring a markedly different form to an otherwise highly recognizable song. Before even getting to an analysis of lyrical meaning, here we see the importance of nonverbal rhythmic construction as a means for imagination of political messaging.

Work songs or “field hollers” were prevalent in the antebellum South and a drumbeat to the manual labor of plantation workers. After being “generally started by one person in the field,” call-and-response techniques were most frequently used as people joined in while continuing their work.11 Such songs had many different functions, including communication to other fields, coordinating actual labor movements, or, much like the spirituals, resistance to their masters. Music as a form of agency, especially for women, is highlighted in the song I’ve chosen as an inspiration for the final stanza, “Hoe Emma Hoe.” Accompanied by solo lines such as “Emma works harder than two broke men,” the call and response line is “Hoe, Emma, hoe,/ you turn around, dig a hole in the ground,/ hoe, Emma, hoe.” The song tells of a slave named Joseph at risk of being sold because he can’t keep up with work and has upset his master, so Emma attempts to compensate for his work on top of her own. The gendered aspect of this song must be noted. Even at a first listen, the women’s voices prevail at the higher pitch as they sing about Emma as a hard worker in the plantation who must keep going. Thinking about domesticity, female agency, and calling for help translates to my final recording. 

Of all the songs I’ve chosen to guide my compositions, “Hoe Emma Hoe” never fails to make me pause and simply listen for a moment to the history. For me, the lyrics with the composition structure are extremely moving yet agonizing, and it is this kind of creation that motivates my imagination. In an attempt to capture the details of this song, my recording centers on two motivations; creating call and response harmonies and examining the word “free.” The restorative nature of music that has transformed from work songs to jazz to pop songs are often united by how “imagination, association, and dramatization are essential to this process of constructing collective trauma.”12 Like in the previous two recordings, I’ve used my hands to create another rhythm to match the sounds of work tools in the background of many work songs. Using my hands in all of the recording in relation to my instrument has brought new textures and capabilities to traditional classical music. Here, I hit the base of my palm on to the side curve of the violin wood and without releasing, pull it up to create a sweeping sound against the instrument. This more subdued sound references women’s work in the house, and their subjectivity to abuse dictated by bodily autonomy.

Nearly ten seconds in, you’ll hear a harmonic hold for exactly sixteen counts, made by hovering a finger on the string board to create the echo. This happens twice throughout, both times deliberately when the lyrics of the final stanza include the word “free.” The calling sound that resonates not only refers to the call and response emotion, but creates a silence for the only 16 days that no one has been killed by police violence in the United States. By bridging the past to the present, we can better think about who do we intend to call asking for help? How is violence remembered and historically perpetuated? I think the harmonic hold represents this well, feeling like a stagnant period that urges for forward movement and yet a tense waiting at the same time. Though this recording likely feels the most familiar to the original, I’ve extended many of the lines to create solo phrases that are repeated with a duet to echo the unity experienced in “Hoe Emma Hoe.” 

In “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin writes,

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.13

Engaging with these genres and figures through my own musicianship is a way for me to find proximity to imagining justice today through the theoretical lens of both race and gender. As the narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass reconsider the agency and ownership of slave narratives, by reimagining the national anthem through the musical traditions of the enslaved, we can think about who is remembered in classical music and who composes it. For a song as ingrained in the American citizen as the national anthem, imagining justice as a listener and a creator feel very different. There is deliberation in the rhythmic structure, musical key, technical performance, and storytelling of the reconstructed stanzas that works in dialogue with music as a form of agency for slaves. Performed on a solo violin, none of the recordings have a vocal counterpart either, and stripping an anthem down to its bones still remains filling in its emotion of the past and present. For listeners, the interpretations of each song are open-ended for the framework of individual imagination. Nonetheless, the process of creating music for oneself and others is not possible in the United States without the vast history of enslaved song makers. Their creations live on in what we hear every day, and the ability to recognize their histories functioning in things as widespread as the national anthem is critical to imagining justice. In reality, “The Star Spangled Banner” and a song like “Hoe Emma Hoe” can be construed quite similarly, the idea behind a united chant reigns for their singers. If the people are not without their music, then they are not without enslaved singers, composers, movements, and rhythms.

  1. Ashley Gromis, From ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too’ to ‘Born in the U.S.A.’: The Transformation of the Campaign Song in Presidential Elections in the United States,” Voices of Globalization, Research in Political Sociology, Volume 21 (2014), 132.
  2. Benjamin Schoening and Eric T. Kasper, Don’t Stop Thinking About the Music : The Politics of Songs and Musicians in Presidential Campaigns (Lexington Books, 2011), 21.
  3. Schoening and Kasper, Don’t Stop Thinking about The Music, 5.
  4. Janelle Harris Dixon,Why The Black National Anthem Is Lifting Every Voice to Sing,” Smithsonian Magazine, 2020. 
  5. Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, “‘Specimens’ and ‘Peculiar Idiosyncrasies’: Songs of “Blind Tom” Wiggins, American Music Review, vol. XL, no. 2 (2011), 1.
  6. Jensen-Moulton, “‘Specimens’ and ‘Peculiar Idiosyncrasies,’” 5.
  7. “The Strange Career of Blind Tom,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 33.
  8. Eileen Guenther, “Spirituals: Music of the Soil and the Soul,” Choral Journal, vol. 57, no. 7 (2017), 66.
  9. Guenther, “Spirituals,” 75.
  10. Guenter, “Spirituals,” 67.
  11. Mala A. Matthew, “The Manifestation of Slave Trauma in Lyrics: A Reading of Select Slave Songs,” International Journal of Comparative Literature & Translation Studies, vol. 6, no. 3 (2018), 28.
  12. Mathew, “The Manifestation of Slave Trauma in Lyrics,” 27.
  13. James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues,” Going to Meet the Man (Vintage, 2013), 45.
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