I stood in Lincoln Hall with only thirty other people. My beer was turning my hand numb, yet nothing could have wiped the smile off my face that tonight. This was the first time I was going to see Medicine for the People in person, since they almost never make it to the mainland from Hawaii. This was going to be the highlight of my trip to Chicago. I was arguing with my friend Smith about which cities had the best drum circles. When the houselights went down, I was unsuccessfully fighting for Philly.
Nahko Bear, the lead singer, slowly walked out onto the stage. Brilliant lines of red, blue, and white were painted on his chest and he slowly pounded a deer skin drum. A large American flag hung on the back stage wall. Standing directly in front of it, he gave out a howl. The rest of the band burst through the flag as he started singing “My Country ‘tis of Thee” a capella.
However, he was singing a version I had never heard before. Although the lyrics he was singing were not the usual ones praising America, I can’t remember another recent moment where I felt so wonderfully American. Yes, he discussed our downfalls, “our sweet land of poverty.” But, it gave me a purpose because I knew there was still so much to do by my generation. Instead of being a funeral song, it was an anthem for the birth of a new nation. The only lyrics of the song he did not change were those that referred to the reverence of nature. It was refreshing and haunting.
Adding verses to “My Country ‘tis of Thee” is not a new phenomenon. People have been doing it since 1845. This song has grown and changed with the nation through both its ups and downs as shown in the abolitionist and the Medicine for the People versions. However, the lines that writers have never changed are those that pertain to the wilderness. The wilderness has always been an intregral theme to American history. It has defined the country before it was even an entity. Not only did the Colonists in both Jamestown and Salem have to battle the elements and survive through brutal winters and terrible crops, but nature is the only thing that has defined America that has not come from any other country.
By 1831, when Samuel Francis Smith wrote “My Country ‘tis of Thee,” nature was no longer an adversary, but instead an emblem of freedom and progress for America. At the time he was writing, the idea of Manifest Destiny was just taking hold.in our national consciousness. John Gash’s painting “ American Progress,” is a great visual representation of this idea. The further west that settlers were able to reach, the more the country was bathed in the light of progress and civility. Although, we no longer have an untamed wilderness from coast to coast, we are still nostalgic for the same ideal.
Smith was originally asked to translate “God save the Queen,” to French and German for one of his professors while he was in college. Instead, he wrote his own set of lyrics and renamed it “My Country ‘tis of Thee.” The first time it was publicly played was at a freedom rally celebrating the Fourth of July in 1838. Since then it has been considered a de facto national anthem.
This first version of the song mainly deals with the beauty of the nation both literally and philosophically. It focuses on the the mountains and rolling plains that naturally come to mind when thinking of the West. Phrases such as land of the noble free, let freedom ring, and pilgrim pride speckle the piece and speak of the philosophical values that the United States holds dear. During this decade, the first major push toward the West began. Going West was important because the country was conquering the “ignorance” of the Native Americans while continuing to spread democracy and tame the wilderness. Nahko Bear wouldn’t approve.
However, by the 1840’s it was clear that the foundation of the country, mainly the idea of freedom, was cracking it apart. Abolitionists and slave owners had differing views on who should be given the rights of a citizen. All minorities, including slaves and women, had been left out in the cold. In response to these feelings A.G. Duncan wrote his own lyrics for “My Country ‘tis of Thee.” No longer was it a triumphant song of a fledgling nation, but rather a ballad of the sins committed against humanity. He kept the poetry that paints the physical attributes of the nation, but then delves into some of the hypocritical language used in the 1831 version. This new take on the song could be considered an abolitionist anthem.
Since the late nineteenth century there have been countless renditions of the song, especially during the sixties. However, the Medicine for the People version is important because it was written during yet another upset in the nation’s history. Coming out in 2012 it verbalized many of the difficulties that the country has had to face since the financial crisis in 2008. Unregulated industrialism and the sweeping to the side of the poor and disenfranchised are important points touched upon. In many ways this rendition takes the song full circle after two centuries of change, regression, and growth as a country.