Obscure Anthems Get Their Moment At The Olympics

The Olympic Games give us the opportunity to view some sports we might not normally watch, and also hear some nations' national anthems we've never heard before. Musician David Was has been musing on some of those tunes.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Olympics are an opportunity to watch sports we don't usually see like team handball or dressage. Musician David Was has been thinking about something the games give us the opportunity to hear.

DAVID WAS, BYLINE: Now that the Olympic games are in full swing, it's time to take a closer listen to national anthems, those trumpet-heavy salutes to patriotism. Long before nation states or beach volleyball tourneys, privileged nobles needed drum rolls and brass bands to herald their comings and goings, a habit that persisted once crowns and scepters gave way to polling booths and voter fraud.

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WAS: Nowadays, the standard issue anthem takes its stylistic cues from imperial forebears, especially those of the United Kingdom, whose "God Save the Queen" still reigns in commonwealth franchises.

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WAS: A good deal of melodic and lyrical borrowing takes place when composing a national anthem, a technique which hip-hop musicians refer to as sampling, but which predates copyrights and litigious lawyers by several centuries.

Joseph Haydn adapted a folk melody to commemorate the birthday of Austrian emperor Frances, II in 1797. Eventually, the Germans co-opted the ditty as their very own in 1922, rewriting the lyrics to reflect their new patriotic fervor.

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WAS: Sometimes, a little persuasion proved necessary to generate a new national anthem, as was the case in Costa Rica in 1853. The fledgling republic was expecting officials from America and England, but had no stately music to play upon their arrival. No problema. The president sent soldiers out to apprehend musician Manuel Gutierrez at gunpoint and threw him in jail until he composed an acceptable song. It took him a good three days, but Gutierrez did come up with what still remains Costa Rica's anthem.

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WAS: Songs denoting one's fealty to the homeland are as old as Methuselah, so says comedian and cultural historian Mel Brooks. In his guise as the 2001-year-old man(ph), he gave voice to what is certainly the very first anthem on record. All rise, if you please.

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MEL BROOKS: (as the 2000-year-old man) (Unintelligible) nations.

CARL REINER: (as the interviewer) Yes.

BROOKS: (as the 2000-year-old man) There was caves. Each cave had a national anthem.

REINER: (as the interviewer) Yes. Remember the national anthem of your cave?

BROOKS: (as the 2000-year-old man) (Singing) Let them all go to hell except for cave 17.

CORNISH: Those thoughts on national anthems from commentator David Was.

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