Jody Rose of the Los Angeles Times argued that the national anthem should be replaced with “Lean On Me,” which was written by American singer-songwriter Bill Withers and spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 100 in July 1972.
The “Star-Spangled Banner” was used by the U.S. Navy in 1889, by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and became America’s national anthem in 1931. The lyrics were written by Francis Scott Key, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who penned them after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by British ships during the War of 1812.
Rose cited famed crooner Frank Sinatra as part of her case to do away with the anthem. “It’s a terrible piece of music,” he said in 1969. “If you took a poll among singers, it would lose a hundred to nothing.”
So Rose concludes: “A song with words few people understand, which fewer can sing, whose sound and spirit bear no relation to our catchy, witty, unpretentious homegrown musical forms: Is this really what we want to hear when we ‘rise to honor America’?”
The writer riffs through some possible replacements, but says: “… none of these songs will do.”
“At a moment when the United States is in the grip of multiple crises — convulsed by debates over racism and injustice, ravaged by a pandemic, with a crumbling economy and a faltering democracy — the very idea of a national anthem, a hymn to the glory of country, feels like a crude relic, another monument that may warrant tearing down. But if we must have an anthem, it should be far different than the one we’ve got now, positing another kind of patriotism, an alternative idea of America and Americanness. It would also be neat if it was, you know, a decent song, which a citizen could sing without crashing into an o’er or a thee, or being asked to pole vault across octaves.”
That song is “Lean On Me,” she says.
Of course, the biggest difference between “Lean on Me” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” is obvious to all who have ears. It’s there in the tolling gospel piano chords and in the bluesy bend of Withers’ vocals. “Lean on Me” is a great piece of popular music, to be specific, a supreme piece of African American pop music — which is to say, it represents the very best of this country. Not only is Black music the finest American thing, the greatest gift that the United States has given to world culture, it is one of the deepest, most truthful repositories of American history, far more honest about the failures and possibilities of the country than the triumphalist official history, which flattens the saga into a procession of Great Men, noble principles, virtuous struggles, adversity overcome, wars won, flags whipping above battlements in the sunrise.
“Lean On Me” was performed by Mary J. Blige performed that the HBO “We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial” in 2009. In 2015, Hillary Clinton, then the Democratic presidential nominee, made a cameo appearance on “Saturday Night Live” with Kate McKinnon and performed the song as a duet.
When Major League Baseball begins its coronavirus-shortened 60-game schedule next week, “The Star-Spangled Banner” will be played before the games. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, we will surely see many more athletes taking a knee during the anthem. But for the moment, it seems unlikely that backlash will imperil the song itself. It is certainly farfetched to imagine Congress decommissioning “The Star-Spangled Banner,” let alone voting to replace it with the likes of “Lean on Me.” There are more pressing matters to attend to. The changes we need in this country will come not through symbolic gestures but when laws are changed, when reforms are enacted, when money is thrown at problems. …
But if the point of a national anthem is to provide a mnemonic, a reminder in music and words of the ideas and values that this place is supposed to stand for, you could do worse than “Lean on Me.” “You just call on me brother, when you need a hand / We all need somebody to lean on / I just might have a problem that you’ll understand / We all need somebody to lean on.”