Vanishing National Anthems: Do We Still Know the Words?

Vanishing National Anthems: Do We Still Know the Words?

Excerpt­ed from “Van­ish­ing Nation­al Anthems,” an essay for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes, obso­lete vers­es, and more images, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, enter your email in the box “Stay in touch with us.” We nev­er dis­close or sell your email address which remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Vanishing fast

A Lon­don adver­tis­ing firm pro­posed upgrad­ing the image of the Unit­ed King­dom. “UK” must go, they said: it sounds like a radio sta­tion. What about Great Britain? “Too chau­vin­is­tic,” along with the Union Flag (“stodgy and cap­tured now as a sym­bol of the rad­i­cal right”). They pro­posed the word “Britain” on “a sim­ple red and blue ban­ner.”  The nation­al anthem also has to go: “It’s all very nice and emo­tion­al, but of course obsolete.”

There’s always been some­thing faint­ly con­cern­ing to impor­tant or fan­cy peo­ple about nation­al anthems. Ear­ly on, the dis­en­chant­ment was rel­a­tive­ly trivial.

Dur­ing Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897, Lady Ran­dolph Churchill arranged for a young man with a music box to play God Save the Queen when­ev­er Her Majesty sat down in her Jubilee dress. When she rose, the song stopped, only to recom­mence when she sat down again. (In mid-verse? One wonders….)

In the Age of Woke, anthems were sub­ject to polit­i­cal the­ater. Ath­letes made wealthy by the soci­ety they deplore began “tak­ing a knee” when the anthem was played. A dimin­ish­ing num­ber of pub­lic events omit­ted what was once the stan­dard open­ing: “Ladies and gen­tle­men, our nation­al anthem.” Anthems used to be sung in schools. Are they still?

Francis Scott Key’s American hymn 

Amer­i­cans “of a cer­tain age” were taught nation­al anthems in school. We learned how Fran­cis Scott Key wrote The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner in 1814. Key was detained on a British war­ship in Bal­ti­more Har­bor dur­ing the shelling of Fort McHen­ry, in what Amer­i­cans call the War of 1812.

Grow­ing up in the Mid­dle Ages, most of us kids sang at least two of Key’s four stan­zas, although the obscure third stan­za was unknown to us. Pos­si­bly its blood­thirsty sen­ti­ments were con­sid­ered too vio­lent for our youth­ful ears.

The jour­nal­ist Bill Kris­tol not­ed that the first stan­za alone is insuf­fi­cient: “I looked up the anthem recent­ly and was struck by the inter­est­ing dif­fer­ences between the four stan­zas. One prob­lem of singing only the first is that it ends in a ques­tion that’s answered in the next three.”9

Right. When the Star-Span­gled Ban­ner is sung at all, one hears only the first stan­za, which is fash­ion­ably non-judg­men­tal and incon­clu­sive. (A few bombs burst but the flag still waves.) Pos­si­bly not one child in a thou­sand has ever heard the great coda of stan­za four (“O thus be it ever…”), which we young­sters often sang.

On occa­sion we sum­moned up the eerie and mys­ti­cal stan­za two (“On the shore dim­ly seen…”). As for stan­za three (“Their blood has washed out their foul foot­steps pollution…”)—that shock­ing sen­ti­ment was con­fined to almanacs even when this writer went to school.

Inadequate substitutes

The sin­gle-stan­za Star-Span­gled Ban­ner is under threat from alter­nate anthems. One pro­posed replace­ment is that Cham­ber of Com­merce pro­duc­tion Amer­i­ca the Beau­ti­ful—wide­ly admired because every­one can sing it. Van­ished already are oth­er noble anthems school­child­ren once lusti­ly sang: God Bless Amer­i­caRodger Young, Colum­bia the Gem of the Ocean.

Britons tell of sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences and con­trasts obfus­cat­ing the anthems of their school­days. The blur­ring of nation­al dis­tinc­tions, eccen­tric­i­ties and quirks that make nations inter­est­ing or quaint or unique, is far advanced. In Cool Bri­tan­nia, dis­play of the Union Flag is con­sid­ered by some the act of a fanat­ic. On my first vis­it in 1974, God Save the Queen closed out the evening news. Not any­more. Yet Britain’s right-thinkers might wel­come vers­es that remind every­one that the monarch reigns but does not rule.

“Wolfe the dauntless…”

O Cana­da, the Cana­di­an nation­al anthem, has the advan­tage of being fre­quent­ly sung in two dif­fer­ent lan­guages. A few lines have been changed to bring O Cana­da in line with mod­ern con­cepts of sex­u­al equal­i­ty, which made good sense.

But anoth­er fine old Cana­di­an song, The Maple Leaf For­ev­er, con­tain­ing such robust sen­ti­ments as “Wolfe the daunt­less” plant­i­ng “Britannia’s flag on Canada’s fair domain,” had to be rewrit­ten. The toned-down win­ning entry was full of “blue unend­ing skies” and “moun­tains strong and sparkling snow.” Ah, well.

“And he sang as he stowed him away into his tucker bag…”

Down Under, God Defend New Zealand seems to have sur­vived intact, while Aus­tralians occa­sion­al­ly sug­gest replac­ing their res­olute Advance Aus­tralia Fair with the whim­si­cal but unmov­ing Waltz­ing Matil­da. But Matil­da will prob­a­bly nev­er be adopt­ed, an Aussie friend says: “Appar­ent­ly the music is some Gael­ic tune. Nor would it be styl­ish to have an anthem whose words describe the activ­i­ties of a sheep-stealer.”

The real national anthems

In Churchill Con­fer­ences past, up to five nation­al anthems have been sung. So, while we briefly have your atten­tion, here are all the stan­zas of five nation­al anthems from coun­tries where Churchill orga­ni­za­tions and memo­r­i­al trusts exist. See that you remem­ber them. There will be a quiz.

The Star-Spangled Banner

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?

On the shore dim­ly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host, in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the tow­er­ing steep,
As it fit­ful­ly blows, half con­ceals half discloses?
Now it catch­es the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glo­ry reflect­ed, now shines on the stream:
‘Tis the Star-Span­gled Ban­ner: O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave! 


And where is that band who so vaunt­ing­ly swore
That the hav­oc of war, and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a coun­try, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul foot­steps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the ter­ror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the Star-Span­gled Ban­ner in tri­umph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever, when free men shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation;
Blest with vic­to­ry and peace, may the heav­en-res­cued land
Praise the Pow­er that hath made and pre­served us a nation!
Then con­quer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our mot­to, “In God is our trust.”
And the Star-Span­gled Ban­ner in tri­umph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

O Canada

O Cana­da! Our home and native land!
True patri­ot love in all of us command.
With glow­ing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North, strong and free!
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
Refrain: God keep our land, glo­ri­ous and free!
O Cana­da, we stand on guard for thee!O Cana­da, we stand on guard for thee!

O Cana­da! Where pines and maples grow.
Great prairies spread and lord­ly rivers flow.
How dear to us thy broad domain,
From East to West­ern Sea,
Thou land of hope for all who toil!
Thou True North, strong and free! 

O Cana­da! Beneath thy shin­ing skies,
May stal­wart sons and gen­tle maid­ens rise,
To keep thee stead­fast through the years,
From East to West­ern Sea,
Our own beloved native land!
Our True North, strong and free! 

Ruler supreme, Who hear­est hum­ble prayer,
Hold our domin­ion with­in thy lov­ing care;
Help us to find, O God, in thee
A last­ing, rich reward,
As wait­ing for the Bet­ter Day,
We ever stand on guard. 

Advance Australia Fair

Aus­tralians all let us rejoice,
For we are one and free;
We’ve gold­en soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea.
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts,
Of beau­ty rich and rare;
In history’s page let every stage
Advance Aus­tralia Fair.
(Refrain) In joy­ful strains then let us sing, Advance Aus­tralia Fair!

Beneath our radi­ant South­ern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Com­mon­wealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve bound­less plains to share;
With courage let us all com­bine to
Advance Aus­tralia Fair. 

The lyrics have been adjust­ed over the years, and some stan­zas com­plete­ly unlim­it­ed. Recent­ly “Aus­tralians all” replaced “Aus­tralian sons,” for per­fect­ly sound rea­sons. But the orig­i­nal stan­zas two and three received the order of the boot, start­ing with one about Cap­tain Cook:

When gal­lant Cook from Albion came
To trade wide oceans o’er;
True British courage bore him on,
Till he land­ed on our shore;
Then here he raised Old England’s flag,
The stan­dard of the brave;
With all her faults we love her still,
Bri­tan­nia rules the waves.

God Defend New Zealand

God of Nations at Thy feet,
In the bonds of love we meet,
Hear our voic­es, we entreat,
God defend our free land.
Guard Pacific’s triple star
From the shafts of strife and war,
Make her prais­es heard afar,
God defend New Zealand.

Men of every creed and race,
Gath­er here before Thy face,
Ask­ing Thee to bless this place,
God defend our free land.
From dis­sen­sion, envy, hate,
And cor­rup­tion guard our state,
Make our coun­try good and great,
God defend New Zealand.


Peace, not war, shall be our boast,
But should foes assail our coast,
Make us then a mighty host
God defend our free land.
Lord of bat­tles in Thy might,
Put our ene­mies to flight,
Let our cause be just and right,
God defend New Zealand.

Let our love for Thee increase,
May Thy bless­ings nev­er cease,
Give us plen­ty, give us peace,
God defend our free land.
From dis­hon­our and from shame,
Guard our country’s spot­less name
Crown her with immor­tal fame
God defend New Zealand.

May our moun­tains ever be
Freedom’s ram­parts on the sea,
Make us faith­ful unto Thee,
God defend our free land.
Guide her in the nations’ van,
Preach­ing love and truth to man
Work­ing out Thy glo­ri­ous plan,
God defend New Zealand.

New Zealand’s nation­al anthem is younger than the oth­ers, dat­ing only to 1876, and is appar­ent­ly non-judg­men­tal enough to sur­vive intact. It has Eng­lish and Māori lyrics, with slight­ly dif­fer­ent mean­ings and late­ly is sung in both lan­guages. When Alan Keyes rehearsed for his pre­sen­ta­tion of five nation­al anthems at the 1993 Churchill con­fer­ence, he said this was the one he most liked learn­ing. He did it jus­tice, too.

“God Save The Queen”: HM Queen Vic­to­ria arriv­ing at St. Paul’s Cathe­dral on the occa­sion of the Dia­mond Jubilee Thanks­giv­ing Ser­vice, 22 June 1897. Forty-eight years lat­er, Mary Churchill sang the same vers­es at anoth­er St. Paul’s Thanks­giv­ing. (Paint­ing by John Charl­ton, pub­lic domain)

God Save the King

God save our gra­cious King
Long live our noble King,
God save the King:
Send him victorious,
Hap­py and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the King.

O Lord, our God, arise,
Scat­ter our enemies,
And make them fall:
Con­found their politics,
Frus­trate their knav­ish tricks,
On thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all.

Not in this land alone,
But be God’s mer­cies known,
From shore to shore!
Lord make the nations see,
That men should broth­ers be,
And form one fam­i­ly, The wide world o’er.

From every latent foe,
From the assassin’s blow,
God save the King!
O’er him thine arm extend,
For Britain’s sake defend,
Our father, prince, and friend,
God save the King!

Thy choic­est gifts in store,
On him be pleased to pour;
Long may he reign:
May he defend our laws,
And ever give us cause
To sing with heart and voice
God save the King.

Little survives

Like The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner, God Save the King is now much abbre­vi­at­ed. Paul Courte­nay, an expert on cer­e­mo­ni­al forms, wrote: “Usu­al­ly verse one alone is sung, although verse five is some­times added. I don’t think verse two has been sung since the Sec­ond World War and I have nev­er heard vers­es three or four sung.”

Sir Winston’s daugh­ter Mary sup­port­ed Paul’s impres­sion, writ­ing in her diary just after V-E Day: “I went with my par­ents to a great ser­vice of thanks­giv­ing in St. Paul’s led by the King and Queen. Such was the mood that we were allowed to sing the sec­ond verse of the nation­al anthem (usu­al­ly a real no-no), bid­ding God arise to scat­ter the King’s ene­mies (Con­found their pol­i­tics / Frus­trate their knav­ish tricks…)”10

That verse was still dubi­ous at a cel­e­bra­tion of Lady Soames’s birth­day in Alas­ka in 2000. Soloist Kei­th Pad­den sang it any­way, with all the oth­er stan­zas. The assem­bly seemed to enjoy it, although the hon­oree thought we were going well over the top.

Roy­al schol­ar Rafal Hey­del-Mankoo notes: “The term ‘anthem’ is a British cre­ation. Between 1760 and 1781 it received only four for­mal the­atre per­for­mances, but from 1781 to 1800 it saw over nine­ty.” It also pro­vid­ed the tune for the nation­al anthems of Switzer­land, Liecht­en­stein, Prus­sia, Bavaria, Sax­ony, and (briefly)  Rus­sia; and the Amer­i­can My Coun­try ’Tis of Thee.

A sto­ry, per­haps apoc­ryphal, involves HMS Prince of Wales sail­ing into Argen­tia for the Atlantic Char­ter meet­ing in August 1941. Aboard USS Augus­ta, the Marine band struck up God Save the King. Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt is report­ed to have cracked: “That’s the best ren­di­tion of My Coun­try ’Tis of Thee I’ve heard in years!”

One thought on “Vanishing National Anthems: Do We Still Know the Words?

  1. Thank you for this fine arti­cle and its remem­brance of anthems sung at sev­er­al Inter­na­tion­al Churchill Con­fer­ences. You are right that Ambas­sador Alan Keyes’s ren­di­tion of many vers­es of five nations’ nation­al anthems at the 1993 con­fer­ence was mem­o­rable. But his oper­at­ic singing goes back fur­ther, to a series of black tie Lin­coln Day Din­ners on Feb­ru­ary 12 that began at Har­vard Col­lege in the 1970s, when he was a grad­u­ate stu­dent of Har­vey Mans­field in gov­ern­ment. Alan used to lead us in singing The Star Span­gled Ban­ner, the Bat­tle Hymn of the Repub­lic, and oth­er songs of the Civ­il War era, such as March­ing Through Geor­gia, by no means neglect­ing the less­er-known vers­es. Prob­a­bly the cul­mi­na­tion of these din­ners was the one held at the Jef­fer­son Hotel in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. on Feb­ru­ary 12, 1984, when the after-din­ner speech was deliv­ered by Pro­fes­sor Wal­ter Berns, fol­lowed by a recita­tion from mem­o­ry of the Get­tys­burg Address by Joseph Alsop. It was all writ­ten up the next day in the Style sec­tion of the Wash­ing­ton Post. After­wards the entire par­ty walked in the moon­light to the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al, where Alan Keyes led us in singing all of the vers­es of the Bat­tle Hymn of the Repub­lic, after which we received a ver­bal warn­ing from a dour Nation­al Park Ser­vice offi­cer who mum­bled some­thing about “demon­strat­ing with­out a per­mit.” We were impen­i­tent. This expe­ri­ence led me lat­er to sug­gest his bravu­ra per­for­mance at the ICS con­fer­ence in 1993.
    As for the 2000 Inter­na­tion­al Churchill Con­fer­ence in Anchor­age, it was Mary Soames’s sec­ond vis­it as guest of hono(u)r of The Right Hon­ourable Sir Win­ston Spencer Churchill Soci­ety of Alas­ka. Her first vis­it had been in Sep­tem­ber sev­er­al years ear­li­er, when she first saw Mt. McKin­ley, as it was then known, and its twin peaks, which were named the Churchill Peaks in 1966; this time we were for­tu­nate to host her on her birth­day at din­ner at Alyeska, in Gird­wood. Not only the less­er-known vers­es of God Save the Queen were sung, as you not­ed, by Kei­th Pad­den, one of the Canaries who lead the assem­bled din­ers in singing Har­row School songs at our annu­al birth­day din­ners on Novem­ber 30 at the Hotel Cap­tain Cook, which always flies the Union flag in hon­or of its name­sake, along with Old Glo­ry and the Alas­ka flag with the Big Dip­per and the North Star; but we also heard Solveig Bar­ber sing sev­er­al vers­es of O Cana­da in both Eng­lish and French, and Sharon Jones, who had also sung with the Canaries when we first host­ed Lady Soames, led din­ers in singing all four vers­es of The Star-Span­gled Banner.
    Anent our nation­al anthem, I would like to invite peo­ple all over the world who may be vis­it­ing Alas­ka on Inde­pen­dence Day (for most of our vis­i­tors do come in the sum­mer) to join us at the Vet­er­ans’ Memo­r­i­al Flag­pole on the Delaney Park Strip in down­town Anchor­age at 1.00 p.m. on any July 4 for the annu­al read­ing of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence. Each year we sing all four vers­es of The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner, and Sharon Jones has also been one of those who has led the singing at that event. We intro­duce vis­i­tors to our state song, Alaska’s Flag, before end­ing the cer­e­mo­ny with the ring­ing of a bell once for each year of Amer­i­can inde­pen­dence. The pro­gram begins with the singing of Fair Har­vard, using the tra­di­tion­al words of the song, because it is orga­nized by the Har­vard Club of Alas­ka as a trib­ute from an old­er asso­ci­a­tion, Har­vard Col­lege (1636) to a younger one, the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca (1776). In these days when Har­vard ought to be brought back to its noble pur­pose, this annu­al cer­e­mo­ny, which goes back almost three decades, reminds us, along with its grad­u­ates’ dis­tin­guished ser­vice in the War to Save the Union, Win­ston Churchill’s 1943 speech at Har­vard, and Har­vey Mansfield’s dis­tin­guished career of teach­ing, that Har­vard at least has an admirable past.

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