Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Hail Columbia" - Our First National Anthem

For years I thought this song was called “Rally Round the Liberty Tree.” As a child I always heard that extra word in the chorus, and somehow it became the title in my mind. It wasn’t until I was watching the mini-series on John Adams that I noticed that the words were wrong. That’s a joke- I mean that I had the words wrong.

I love the Star Spangled Banner; especially the history behind the writing of it; but sometimes when I think about it, and realize that it wasn’t our National Anthem until 1931, I find myself looking back at songs like “Hail Columbia” and “America the Beautiful” and wonder how it was that we didn’t have a National Anthem sooner than we did.

But, as much as I prefer “Hail Columbia”, simply because it was written at the time of our nation’s birth, rather than some 25 years later at the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, I would never change it. How would we ever play baseball without it? Can you imagine, even for a moment, 70,000 people or more, singing “Hail Columbia” before the game? 

That being said; let me briefly make the case for “Hail Columbia” as the true National Anthem. First of all, it was widely considered to be the National Anthem up until the time that “The Star Spangled Banner” was designated as such in 1931. The song is wholly American in composition, unlike the “Star Spangled Banner”, which was written by Mr. Key as a poem and later set to an old British air.

By contrast, Joseph Hopkinson wrote the poem, which was added to Phillip Phile's music. Both were Americans; one an immigrant and the other native born. Joseph was the son of Francis Hopkinson who was personally known to General Washington from the War for Independence. This allowed him to send the words and music to Washington in 1798. The lyrics were the same as the General had heard at his first inauguration in 1789, but this time the music was different. The original title had been called “The President’s March” but was now billed as “Hail Columbia” due to a change in the words by Mr. Hopkinson.

Just as with the “Star Spangled Banner” there is an interesting “backstory” here as well. It involves an actor named Gilbert Fox, who wanted to find more rousing lyrics to go with the “President’s March.” He had chosen the song for the debut of a benefit concert; I bet you thought that sort of thing began with Bangla Desh; which was only days away. The concert was undersold and slated to be a losing proposition unless he could come up with something new and exciting.

On a Sunday afternoon he went to see Judge Hopkinson and asked for his help in composing a new set of lyrics. When the actor returned the next day, the song was finished.

Mr. Fox was able to open his show on time, the following Wednesday April 25, 1798 at Philadelphia’s New Theatre. The song was a show stopper, calling for 12 encores, with the audience quickly learning the words and joining in on the chorus. This was clearly a song of the people.

The scene above, from “John Adams” is pretty much true to life, as only a few nights later, President Adams and some of his cabinet; then based in Philadelphia; caught the show.

Interestingly, the song has survived as the entrance march for the Vice President of the United States, and is played whenever he leaves or arrives, much as "Hail to the Chief" is for the President.

“Hail Columbia” by Philip Phile/ Joseph Hopkinson

 Hail Columbia, happy land!
 Hail, ye heroes, heaven-born band,
 Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
 Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
 And when the storm of war was gone
 Enjoy'd the peace your valor won.
 Let independence be our boast,
 Ever mindful what it cost;
 Ever grateful for the prize,
 Let its altar reach the skies.

 Firm, united let us be,
 Rallying round our liberty,
 As a band of brothers joined,
 Peace and safety we shall find.

 Immortal patriots, rise once more,
 Defend your rights, defend your shore!
 Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
 Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
 Invade the shrine where sacred lies
 Of toil and blood, the well-earned prize,
 While offering peace, sincere and just,
 In Heaven's we place a manly trust,
 That truth and justice will prevail,
 And every scheme of bondage fail.


 Behold the chief who now commands,
 Once more to serve his country stands.
 The rock on which the storm will break,
 The rock on which the storm will break,
 But armed in virtue, firm, and true,
 His hopes are fixed on Heav'n and you.
 When hope was sinking in dismay,
 When glooms obscured Columbia's day,
 His steady mind, from changes free,
 Resolved on death or liberty.


 Sound, sound the trump of fame,
 Let Washington's great fame
 Ring through the world with loud applause,
 Ring through the world with loud applause,
 Let every clime to freedom dear,
 Listen with a joyful ear,
 With equal skill, with God-like power
 He governs in the fearful hour
 Of horrid war, or guides with ease
 The happier time of honest peace.

 Firm, united let us be,
 Rallying round our liberty,
 As a band of brothers joined,
 Peace and safety we shall find.

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