What’s in an Anthem?

NPR Music is running a series on anthems. One of the first examples they used was the counter-protesters in Charlottesville singing, “This Little Light of Mine.” If you don’t recall the scene, armed guards stood at the ready while a group of Pentecostal clergymen led the crowd in song as white supremacists marched in protest to the removal of a Confederate monument. It was intense, and music played a key role.

The word anthem is derived from antiphon, or antiphonal music, which is more commonly known as call-and-response. A leader might “call” with lyrics that will change over the course of the song (“this little light of mine…”), and then a group “responds” with a refrain that stays consistent (“…I’m gonna let it shine”).

The self-referential nature of antiphonal music led to our modern definition of anthem as, “a song that defines or unites some group.” Consider national anthems as the ultimate example of a group-defining song.

I’m particularly interested in the role music plays alongside the evolution of individuals into groups, and then the group’s collective evolution from there. The broad definition of anthem fits nicely over that entire process, making this a really fascinating social study.

Consider how a disparate individual calls out and then one other responds. If the message clicks, more people will respond. In time, a group forms. Once together, they come up with an anthem to announce themselves to other groups. There’s tribal power in song.

That first step, the calling out for response, is important to remember. When we’re trying to find a group, we’re looking to either get a response or echo one back. It’s not until we’re self-identified with a group that we’re going to learn and then sing along with the anthem. Song structures track in line with group formation and help in documenting their progress.

The NPR series will inevitably have a subplot of songs that protest against power, as well as songs that reaffirm and consolidate existing power. I’m looking forward to following along as they trace this thread through times and groups.