What So Proudly We Hail : Code Switch So "The Star-Spangled Banner" is kind of a mess: notoriously tough to sing and with some weird stanzas about slavery. This week, we're looking at two of the country's other anthems with their own messy histories to find out what those songs tell us about American ideals.
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What So Proudly We Hail

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What So Proudly We Hail

What So Proudly We Hail

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What's good, y'all? It's Gene. So on Friday, November 16, Shereen and I will be live at Harlem's world-famous Apollo Theater. It's part of the Werk It Festival from WNYC Studios. We're going to be joined by the poet Denice Frohman. We're hanging out with Marcus Samuelsson, the head chef of Red Rooster in Harlem. Plus, we're going to have music from the percussionist and composer Bobby Sanabria. You can get your tickets at werkitevents.com. That's werkitevents.com.


FERGIE: (Singing) Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light...

DEMBY: Fergie - sis, what is you doing? What is you doing?


FERGIE: (Singing) ...What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?

DEMBY: (Laughter). That, of course, y'all, is Fergie singing the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game back in February. And to be fair to your girl Fergie, our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," is notoriously hard to sing. It's really hard to do well unless you're, like, you know, Marvin Gaye or Whitney Houston.

And then there are the lyrics themselves, which are about this weird little battle near Baltimore during the War of 1812. And the backstory here is the British put out a proclamation that would have freed enslaved black people who fought for them on their side and against the Americans. And so the third verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which we don't usually sing, is this lamentation about those formerly enslaved people going to fight during the war for the British navy. And so this song, in a way, is a celebration of this American fort standing strong and tall against this enemy that would have, among other things, freed the enslaved. I mean...


FERGIE: (Singing) Brave.


FERGIE: Let's play some basketball.

DEMBY: I guess - yay, America. I don't know.

This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. We're going to hear from Shereen in a second. Today we are talking about anthems. So it's probably fitting, given what we know about the national anthem, that it has been the site of protests against racism in the United States for a long time. Fifty years ago this week at the 1968 Olympics was when Tommie Smith and John Carlos put their fists in the air during the medal ceremony as the national anthem played. We all know about the contemporary protests against the criminal justice system by NFL players like Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid or the soccer player Megan Rapinoe.

But there are many, many anthems in American life. And today we're going to talk about two of them in particular. Our colleagues at NPR Music are doing this very dope series called American Anthem. And they're telling the stories of these powerful songs loaded with meaning that people in America rally around. And as it happens, my partner in crime, my co-host Shereen Marisol Meraji offered up her own entry into the series. And it's about a song that you've probably heard, like, a million times but has a secretly fascinating history.


RITCHIE VALENS: (Singing) Para bailar La Bamba...

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: "La Bamba" - it was the first song in Spanish to hit No. 1 in the United States - but not this Ritchie Valens version. No, the year was 1987, and the band that took "La Bamba" to the top of the charts was Los Lobos.


LOS LOBOS: (Singing) Yo no soy marinero. Yo no soy marinero. Soy capitan. Soy capitan. Soy capitan. Bamba, bamba...

MERAJI: For our series American Anthem, I'm going to spend the next few minutes talking about why this Spanish-language song with roots in Veracruz, Mexico, is still an enduring American anthem. We'll begin in the present - or at least the not-too-distant past.

On an unusually cold and overcast Saturday in October last year, counterprotesters faced down neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Shelbyville, Tenn. And the counterprotesters brought a sound system.

CHRIS IRWIN: Man, it was a nice one. It was loud. I'm afraid we may have damaged their hearing.

MERAJI: Chris Irwin was one of the organizers. He's a public defender in Knoxville and says they used that sound system to drown out the speakers on the other side of the street with music.

IRWIN: There's this guy we call Angry Santa. And Angry Santa is a KKK guy - unabashed. We've seen him at other rallies. And he starts talking about rounding up all you degenerate whores. And it just occurred to me. I was like, let's try "La Bamba." (Singing) Da-da-da-da (ph) La Bamba.


LOS LOBOS: (Singing) Para bailar La Bamba, para bailar La Bamba, se necesita. Una poca de gracia, una poca...


TREVOR NOAH: The absolute best counterprotest I have ever seen.

MERAJI: Trevor Noah saw a video of the rally online and talked about it on "The Daily Show."


NOAH: A white supremacist gets up to give a speech. And he doesn't get punched. Someone just starts playing "La Bamba."


IRWIN: People were dancing on our side. And think about that. At Charlottesville, they murdered that woman with a car. They were violent. They came in with clubs and fire. And we had a thousand people show up - African-Americans, immigrants, Hispanics - brave people. And they're dancing and laughing at them.


NOAH: Even one of the Nazis can't help but dance along. Look at him. Look at him.


NOAH: That guy totally forgets he's wearing a Nazi helmet.


NOAH: Yeah. He's like, yeah, we're the supreme race, but that is the supreme beat. Come on. Come on.


IRWIN: And he was dancing at a Nazi rally with KKK members to a song that was multicultural by its very nature and sound and beat. And when you hit a song and something like that happens, you know on a cellular level, this is something that's right for right now. This is it.


MERAJI: As right as "La Bamba" is for these times, it's got a long, long history


ANDRES HUESCA: (Singing) Para cantar La Bamba - para cantar La Bamba se necesito una poca de gracia - una poca de gracia y otra cosita. Ay arriba, ay arriba...

MERAJI: Story goes that a 17-year-old Mexican-American kid from the San Fernando Valley named Ritchie Valens probably heard this version of "La Bamba" growing up, sung by Andres Huesca. It was popularized during the golden age of Mexican cinema, around the 1940s.

LUIS VALDEZ: If there's any one song that represents the Americas, it is this one song, "La Bamba."

MERAJI: Luis Valdez wrote and directed the 1987 film "La Bamba" about the life and death of Ritchie Valens. Valdez still doesn't know the exact meaning of the title of Valens' most famous song, but he did lots of research for the film and thinks it's a reference to something he calls umbamba (ph) from Africa.

VALDEZ: And it was a beat; it was a sound. And that landed on the shores of Veracruz.

MERAJI: Enslaved Africans were brought a few hundred years ago to Veracruz, Mexico. And because cultural fusion has long been a means of survival, African, indigenous and Spanish traditions were all mashed up. And out of that mashup, a musical style was created called son jarocho. "La Bamba" is a son jarocho song.

ALEXANDRO HERNANDEZ: This strum to "La Bamba."


MERAJI: Alexandro Hernandez is an ethnomusicologist at UCLA and a musician himself.

HERNANDEZ: Listen to it when I mute it.


MERAJI: Hernandez says that rhythm is the beating heart of son jarocho.

HERNANDEZ: It's there. It's, like, embedded in the strum itself, too...


HERNANDEZ: ...Because it is that Afro-Caribbean connection that's been there for hundreds of years mixed in with a little bit of the Espanol and First Nations.

MERAJI: Ritchie Valens took that style of folk music from Latin America and turned it into an anthem for the United States of America. His real name was Richard Valenzuela. He came of age when segregation was still legal in parts of the U.S. and kids were punished in school for speaking Spanish.


VALENS: (Singing) Bamba, bamba, bamba, bamba, bamba, bamba - para bailar La Bamba,

MERAJI: Valens' version of "La Bamba" was actually a B-side. But it became a surprise hit, climbing to No. 22 on the charts in 1959. Luis Valdez says Valens took that song to a whole new level.

VALDEZ: And to a whole new audience because that audience was young. At that time, they were teenagers. And they were hearing rock 'n' roll. They weren't hearing Mexican folk music. They were hearing rock 'n' roll.


MERAJI: Rock 'n' roll, a unique musical mashup that, like son jarocho, also has roots in slavery and colonization - a sound of survival now totally synonymous with the U.S.A. And Luis Valdez's film "La Bamba" brought that song to new audiences three decades later using a version by a band from East Los Angeles called Los Lobos.


LOS LOBOS: (Singing) Para bailar La Bamba, para bailar La Bamba se necesito una poca de gracia...

MERAJI: The Los Lobos version of "La Bamba" topped the charts by starting with rock 'n' roll and ending with son jarocho.


LEAH ROSE GALLEGOS: My parents are big fans of Los Lobos so I just remember hearing the Los Lobos version a lot in the car.

MERAJI: Leah Rose Gallegos is a member of a band from north east L.A. called Laskoff at Eros and they've come to represent la Bombus future taking the song in a new direction mixing Sun had also with influences from hip-hop culture and met up with the band at their first practice space, Gallegos' parents' house in Highland Park, where they played me their version.

LAS CAFETERAS: (Singing) Es La Bamba rebelde. Es La Bamba rebelde que cantare porque somos chicanas - porque somos chicanas de East LA - ay arriba y arriba.

MERAJI: Now, Ritchie Valens sang that to dance La Bamba, you need a little grace. Denise Carlos sings, this is the rebellious La Bamba because we're Chicanas from East LA. I don't believe in borders. I cross them.

Carlos says son jarocho's a style of music where the lyrics are always changing. That's encouraged. It's like freestyling in hip-hop. So "La Bamba" is constantly evolving. She and bandmate Hector Flores say their lyrics to the song represent how they're feeling right now.

DENISE CARLOS: I will never be authentic to Mexico. I will never be authentic to this idea of Americanism. But I still belong, and I still am valid. And our culture as Chicanos and pochas is still valid.

HECTOR FLORES: We're not from Veracruz. We're from right here. We LA kids. And we speak Spanish just as bad as we speak English.


FLORES: You know, like? And like, that allowed us to then be proud of "La Bamba" versus, oh, that's just how they box me up.

MERAJI: And "La Bamba" follows them everywhere - on vacation, even. Leah Rose Gallegos says she was traveling in Thailand with her husband, who's also a member of the group, and they were invited to a karaoke birthday party. Everyone there knew they were American, and everyone had two requests.

GALLEGOS: Do an Elvis song, and do "La Bamba."


GALLEGOS: And we were like, OK. Let's do it.


MERAJI: Which one did you rock better?

GALLEGOS: Oh, "La Bamba," for sure (laughter). I didn't grow up with Elvis.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Like that, huh?


LAS CAFETERAS: (Singing) Es La Bamba sonores - es La Bamba sonores la melodia que nos pone en el alma - que nos pone en el alma mucha alegria. Ay arriba y arriba...

MERAJI: Bandmate Hector Flores says he loves that story because it's just one example of how people around the world think a Spanish-language song made famous by Chicanos is an all-American anthem, especially right now.

FLORES: You know? And like, that's so dope to me. This song survived slavery, colonialism. And you're damn sure it's going to survive Trump because it lives within us. And we invite everybody to also make it yours.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All my people in the place tonight, everybody come and sing along like this, hey.

LAS CAFETERAS: (Singing) Ay latido, ay latido, ay latido, ay latido de corazon que se acabe La Bamba, que se acabe La Bamba de corazon. Ay arriba y arriba, ay arriba y arriba arriba ire. Yo no creo en fronteras. Yo no creo en fronteras. Yo no cruzare. Yo no cruzare. Yo cruzare - eh.

FLORES: Que viva la raza.


DEMBY: When we come back, our play-cousin Bilal Qureshi, a native Virginian, takes us south of the Mason-Dixon to talk about Dixie.


DEMBY: Oh, boy. Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene - just Gene - CODE SWITCH. All right, so let's turn to our next anthem. Bilal Qureshi, an NPR reporter who you've heard on the pod before, he's a play-cousin of ours. He takes us to the Old South to Richmond, Va. That's where he grew up. As you remember from our reporting, it's a town known for its Confederate statues. But he says one of the most enduring monuments to the Old South there isn't set in stone. And it might be America's most divisive song - "Dixie," the rallying cry of the Confederacy during the civil war. Here's Bilal.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: When my Pakistani immigrant parents chose Richmond, Va., as our American hometown, they didn't realize the city had a pre-existing condition - nostalgia for the lost cause of the Confederacy.


QURESHI: Growing up, the ghosts of the Old South were everywhere - rebel flags waving from pickup trucks and Confederate monuments along the city's main avenue. For four years, Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States of America. And if that country had an anthem, it was "Dixie." But the song was born in the North, says historian Ed Ayers, who lives in Richmond.

ED AYERS: "Dixie" actually was only created in 1859 as a minstrel show in Ohio, which people tend to forget that minstrelsy was the most popular art form in the United States - white men in black face, very often from the North, imagining happy, enslaved people...


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I wish I was in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten. Look away. Look away. Look away, Dixie Land.

AYERS: ...And parodying them at the same time that they are pretending to be them. So it's a very weird thing for people to have adopted as a national anthem of the Confederacy.

QURESHI: The Confederacy was a pop-up nation, and its soldiers needed a song says, musician Bryant Henderson.

BRYANT HENDERSON: There weren't a whole lot of songs. There weren't anthems as such, particularly about the South. And "Dixie" was a hot, popular hit.

QURESHI: Henderson is at Gettysburg with the 2nd South Carolina String Band for the re-enactment of the war's defining battle.


QURESHI: After a long day of fighting, soldiers gather by candlelight under the big tent to close the night with "Dixie."



TONY HORWITZ: The tune is tremendously catchy. Whenever I hear it, I find myself humming it all day. It's really a wonderful song if you ignore all the racial and political overtones.

QURESHI: Journalist Tony Horwitz is the author of "Confederates In The Attic," a book in which he traced the enduring legacy of the Lost Cause. Horwitz says, while "Dixie" can work inside the parameters of a re-enactment, in real America, the song is tangled up with the history of racism and segregation.

HORWITZ: "Dixie" was part of the score of "Birth Of A Nation," the movie that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan. It was embraced by the segregationist Dixiecrats in the 1940s. And in the 1950s, it was sung by white women protesting the integration of schools.

QURESHI: By the 1970s, it was on prime time, says historian Ed Ayers.

AYERS: Think of "Dukes Of Hazzard." Their horn plays the first notes of "Dixie."


QURESHI: But "Dixie's" biggest platform was the Southern football stadium and nowhere more prominently than the University of Mississippi and its Pride of the South marching band.


CHRIS PRESLEY: My name is Chris Presley, and I was the drum major for the Pride of the South marching band at Ole Miss. My first two years, I was playing "Dixie" with the marching band. And then my last few years, I was conducting the song.

QURESHI: Chris Presley is African-American. And he says, despite the song's divisive history, during games, "Dixie" could become a unifying anthem.

PRESLEY: Even though the song divided many people, I still saw everyone holding up their pompoms, especially when we were winning, during the song of "Dixie."

QURESHI: How many times would it be played in the course of a game?

PRESLEY: Oh, goodness - it really just depends on the football team during that game. You know, if we were winning, maybe 20 times.

QURESHI: The band continued playing "Dixie" until two years ago, when the school finally stopped using it.

RENE MARIE: I have always loved the song "Dixie."

QURESHI: That's jazz singer Rene Marie.

MARIE: As a black person, I knew that it was like, no, you (laughter) - you cannot sing this song because it's "Dixie," Rene. But I thought, this is a song that's just about somebody who wishes they were back in their hometown in the South. I can identify with that.

QURESHI: And so she sang it for the first time in Richmond.


MARIE: (Singing) In Dixie Land, I'll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.

QURESHI: Marie says people were shocked, as if she'd used the most offensive racial slur.

MARIE: Oh, they sat back, you know, and folded their arms and crossed their legs - like, what is this? - because honestly, Bilal, there are certain emblems of this society that are just taboo. You know, Confederate flag is anathema to African-Americans - and for good reason; the word nigger is anathema and the song "Dixie" - it's like the (laughter) trifecta, you know?

QURESHI: But in her arrangement, Rene Marie merges "Dixie" with a song that Billie Holiday made famous about lynching.


MARIE: (Singing) Some trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

That's the juxtaposition, isn't it? And both songs are representative of what it's like living in the South.

QURESHI: But that Old South is fading. And I asked Rene Marie if it would be better if one of its symbols, "Dixie," was best forgotten.

MARIE: No. Do not try to erase it. I would say look at it. Find out what's going on with your country. And stop thinking that it's post- anything. It's not post- anything. It's all still right here in your face, I mean (laughter), to use the vernacular. But yes, it's right here. Don't be misled into thinking that everything is fine.


QURESHI: Back in Gettysburg, as the re-enactors take a moment to step out of the sepia-toned past to reflect on the present news cycle, there are nods of agreement from one of them, Joe Whitney.

JOE WHITNEY: What's happening today is very similar to what happened back then. You know, you had the breakdown in civil behavior, the breakdown in people hearing the other side and understanding. And in a way, we want people to learn about this because history may not repeat itself, but it definitely rhymes, as they say.

QURESHI: All of this history is a heavy burden to bear for a song that was intended to be nothing more than a jaunty pop tune. But Civil War historian Ed Ayers says "Dixie" could never be just a song.

AYERS: Once you live in the South - I've chosen to live here - you look around, you see the ghosts of the past everywhere around us. So I can never hear "Dixie" as anything other than a song that has accrued all this meaning over so many generations.

QURESHI: Ayers says, even if "Dixie" was expunged, it will always be an anthem in some American hearts, confined but never forgotten, alive and electric as only anthems can be.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.


MARIE: (Singing) Away, away down south in Dixie.


DEMBY: All right, y'all. That is our show. But before we bounce, we want to hear from you about your anthems, the songs that get people hyped, that rally them together for a cause. So tweet at us. We're @nprcodeswitch. Or email us at codeswitch@npr.org. As always, if you have any questions about race you want us to dig into, we love hearing from you. Email us with the subject line, Ask CODE SWITCH. Follow us on Twitter, again, @nprcodeswitch. And sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch. Subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez and edited by Sami Yenigun and Tom Cole with engineering help from Josh Newell. And shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team, my co-host Shereen Marisol Meraji, who you heard; Walter Ray Watson, Leah Donnella, Adrian Florido, Kat Chow, Kumari Devarajan and Steve Drummond. Our intern is Andrea Henderson. And welcome to our new Kroc fellow, Mayowa Aina. I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.


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