United in song: the evolution of our American anthems

National anthems echo a shared history, but these tunes are not immune to change. Throughout the Americas, modifications to national songs demonstrate solidarity across borders.


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The Argentine national anthem is the oldest official anthem in the Americas. Drafted in the early years of the Spanish American wars of independence, an Argentine constituent assembly made it official in 1813, three years before the country’s official declaration of independence from Spain. 

The song’s lyrics, written by Alejandro Vicente López y Planes—who later served as interim President of the young nation—originally contained numerous lines of bloody invective against the Spanish, e.g.:

Pero sierras y muros se sienten
Retumbar con horrible fragor:
Todo el país se conturba con gritos
de venganza, de guerra y furor.
En los fieros tiranos la envidia
Escupió su pestífera hiel
Su estandarte sangriento levantan
Provocando a la lid más cruel. 
Mountain ranges and walls are felt
To resound with a horrible din:
All the country convulses with cries
of revenge, of war and of rage.
On the fiery tyrants Envy
Spit her pestiferous bile;
They raise their bloody standard
Provoking the cruelest of combats.

Relations between the two countries had come a long way since the prior century’s bitter war of independence. Commerce was thriving, and Spanish immigration to Argentina was in full swing. Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards had migrated across the Atlantic over the previous decades, changing the South American nation’s demographics, politics, and even its language. These words reflected the national sentiment during the violent period of revolutionary fervor. By the close of the nineteenth century, however, they were no longer an accurate representation of the times.

The tension between lyrics and politics came to a head in 1900, after a high-profile visit of the new Argentine frigate Presidente Sarimento to Spain. The Spanish king and queen rolled out the red carpet to captain and crew in ceremonies that prominently featured the Argentine anthem. 

This show of royal honors to a song that castigated both the crown and its subjects created some discomfort back in Buenos Aires. Just weeks after the visit, then-President Julio Argentino Roca issued a decree on the anthem. It noted that the Argentine anthem “contains phrases written as a product of another era…incompatible with international relations of friendship, union, and harmony that today unite the Argentine Nation with Spain.” Nonetheless, the decree continues, “without altering its text, the National Anthem contains verses that align perfectly with the concept that all nations have with respect to their Anthems in times of peace and that are consistent with tranquility and dignity of thousands of Spaniards who share their lives with ours.” As such, it ordered that only the more diplomatically-friendly first and last verses, along with the chorus, would be played at public ceremonies. 

That artful bit of diplomacy—changing the anthem without actually modifying the lyrics—remains in force today.

This episode reflects how our anthems represent a national “calling card” of sorts—a window into the ever-evolving worldview of a country and its people. Our anthems naturally express deeply rooted national sentiments. They are also ubiquitous, one of the only types of song that spans generations. Almost every citizen learns their anthem at a very young age, and hears it regularly. (In some nations, TV and radio stations must play the anthem at set times daily. Mexicans, for example, instinctively associate their anthem with 6 a.m. and midnight.) Anthems are also one of the few national symbols that foreigners routinely encounter, as these songs are commonplace at occasions like sporting events and official ceremonies.

The same may be said about the anthems of the Americas taken together. They tell a story of our region as a whole: who we are; how we reached independence; and how we have changed. They are, in short, a microcosm of what the Americas represent and how they have evolved.

In Tune with the Times

The transformation of the Argentine anthem to reflect normalized relations with Spain was emblematic of a broader trend. During the post-revolutionary period, Cuba, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil also modified the original lyrics of their anthems (whether official or unofficial at the time) to account for better relations with their former colonizers.

When Cuba officially adopted “La Bayamesa” as its anthem in 1902, the government quietly set aside two verses of the song’s original lyrics, written during the war with Spain:

No temáis los feroces íberos,
Son cobardes cual todo tirano.
No resisten al bravo cubano;
Para siempre su imperio cayó.
¡Cuba libre! Ya España murió,
Su poder y su orgullo ¿do es ido?
¡Del clarín escuchad el sonido:
¡A las armas, valientes, corred!

Contemplad nuestras huestes triunfantes,
Contempladlos a ellos caídos.
Por cobardes huyeron vencidos;
¡Por valientes, sabemos triunfar!
¡Cuba libre! podemos gritar
Del cañón al terrible estampido.
¡Del clarín escuchad el sonido:
¡A las armas, valientes, corred!

Fear not the vicious Iberians,
They are cowards like every tyrant.
They cannot face the brave Cuban;
Their empire has forever fallen.
Free Cuba! Spain has already died,
Its power and pride, where did it go?
Hear the sound of the bugle:
To arms, O brave ones, run!

Behold our triumphant troops,
Behold those who have fallen.
As they were cowards, they flee defeated;
As we were brave, we knew how to triumph.
Free Cuba! we can shout
From the cannon, its terrible boom.
Hear the sound of the bugle,
To arms, O brave ones, run!

Likewise, the Uruguayan government ordered a rewrite of the original anthem’s lyrics about a decade after its adoption. The result was the removal of certain passages like the following:

En fatal servidumbre sufrimos
De dos cetros el peso y poder,
Más el eco sonó de venganza,
Y dos cetros supimos romper!
Esos prados y montes oh Patria,
Dó el estruendo marcial resonó,
Serán siempre, teñidos en sangre,
De tus glorias eterno padrón.
In the fatal servitude we suffered
Of two scepters mighty and strong
But the echo rang of vengeance
And two scepters we knew how to break!
These fields and mountains, oh homeland,
Where the warlike thunder resounded
Will be always, dyed in blood,
An eternal example of your glories.

Chile went a step further, completely replacing all but the chorus of its original national anthem, which was written at the outset of independence in the 1810s, with the current version featuring lyrics by Chilean poet/politician Eusebio Lillo Robles. Robles’ lyrics have not been immune to subsequent winds of change, either. During the Pinochet years, the military regime emphasized the song’s third verse, which extols the Chilean soldier. Since then, the verse remains a flashpoint for controversy.

Similarly, Brazilians do not sing the lyrics originally written for its anthem’s musical score, due to their pointed attacks on Portugal. One line refers to “os monstros que nos escravizam,” or “the monsters that enslave us.” The aggressive words were replaced by a more polite version penned by poet Joaquim Osório Duque Estrada, which was itself updated in 1971 to reflect the new orthographic structure of the Portuguese language.

Other American nations also modified their anthems as their political realities evolved. In the 1930s, Guatemala changed some of its anthem’s lyrics that were considered “too warlike.” In the 1940s, when Mexico made its anthem official, it eliminated verses praising the now-unpopular Antonio López de Santa Ana. Colombians informally added a verse to their anthem during a 1930s border war with neighboring Peru, although it was not retained after hostilities ended. The Peruvian Constitutional Court added a “lost verse” to the national anthem in 2005, and a few years later the executive branch changed which verse would be sung at public events, requiring a massive public education campaign.

The Anglophone anthems have undergone changes too, albeit fewer than their regional counterparts. This is probably due to their relative age, as few of them predate the 1960s, reflecting the more recent independence of the Commonwealth nations.

Still, lyrical disputes have arisen. In 2018, after much debate, Canada made the lyrics of its English-language anthem gender-neutral, changing the line “True patriot love in all thy sons command” to “True patriot love in all of us command.” (The French version of “O Canada” has different lyrics that remain unchanged.) Some in Belize have expressed similar attitudes about gendered references in their national song. Likewise, the one non-Romance language anthem of the group (Suriname’s) was modified when the previously unofficial anthem was given official status. Part of the unofficial Dutch song was replaced with an uplifting verse in Sranan Tongo, written by author Henri Frans de Ziel (“Trefossa”).

Likewise, controversy has also followed a more obscure section of the United States’ anthem—one of the few from the Anglophone countries predating the mid-20th century—almost since it was written. (Although it only became the official anthem in 1931, its lyrics were penned in 1814.) Since then, its largely unknown third verse has attracted criticism, due to both its anti-British tenor and its reference to slavery. The latter issue still simmers today in debates about racial justice, and revolves around lines referring to former slaves and indentured servants who joined the British Colonial Marines to fight against U.S. troops:

         No refuge shall save, the hireling and slave,
         From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.

This reference even spurred an unofficial modification to the lyrics during the U.S. Civil War, when Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (father of the U.S. Supreme Court justice) wrote an “extra” verse for the song, excoriating the Confederacy and slavery. At the time, it appeared in contemporary songbooks but has since been largely forgotten.

A Distinctly American Harmony

Our musical “calling cards” thus embody our conceptions of who we are and what we represent as peoples. They are also less static than they may initially appear, at least in the Americas. While debates about and changes to their lyrics are always contentious—as any proposed modification to a national symbol is bound to be—they mirror shifts in these conceptions as history marches on.

Viewed from a regional perspective, those changes reveal how we as a hemisphere have shifted from revolutionary antagonism toward our former colonizers to close cultural and commercial relations. Deadly hatreds have been replaced by the Organización de Estados Iberoamericanos, the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa, and the U.S.-U.K. “special relationship.” They also reveal changing attitudes about race and gender.

More broadly, they underscore the common aspirations toward liberty and representative government that created the independent nations of the Americas. Indeed, it would be hard to find a better summary of our regional “calling card” than a famous line from Uruguay’s almost operatic anthem: “¡Tiranos temblad!” (“Tyrants, tremble!”). 

Liberty and democracy, as well as war and human bondage, are our common regional heritage. For better and for worse, they unite us, and they do so via a remarkably small number of languages—you can walk from Alaska to Patagonia singing anthems in only English and Spanish. 

That shared legacy of triumph and tragedy allows us to understand each other more easily, and to have a common point of reference on the global stage. Nowhere else in the world are so many people, across so large and productive a land, bound together by language and history. It is therefore no surprise that the first international association of nations, the Pan-American Union, was founded here in the Americas. Similarly, its modern incarnation, the Organization of American States, was the first association of its kind to adopt a robust democratic charter for its member states to protect representative government.

This commonality represents a tremendous potential for regional cooperation and human progress as Americans, that we must not forget as we shape our nations’ foreign policies. There is tremendous strength in this unity, one that makes the Americas a region capable of concerted action on essential global issues like democracy, human rights, and intellectual freedom—something we should remember every time we hear our anthems played.

Note: The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author in his personal capacity.  The author is also indebted to Eduardo Tisnes of Medellín, Colombia, for his extensive research supporting this article. Additionally, all 35 American anthems may be explored more in-depth at http://nationalanthemart.com

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