Republic or Death! and other stirring lyrics

British author Alex Marshall has literally written the book on national anthems: a copy of Republic or Death! is on its way to my house even now. I first heard of his work last month on the podcast The Gist, where he explained the origin of the tune to “The Star-Spangled Banner”. I’d always read that it was a drinking song, but in his telling it was specifically a showoffy drinking song, hard to sing by design—the point was for you to toss back a few and then be ready to show your buddies how wide your vocal range was, a sort of preindustrial karaoke.

I jumped to the SSB article on Marshall’s website to find that illustrates the original tune and words with a recording by David Hildebrand, a faculty member at the Peabody Conservatory, my alma mater.

But no sooner than I could say “Hey, I know that guy,” I scrolled down to the next sound clip—the official US-government-approved Spanish version of the “Banner”—and heard someone I really know: my sister, the amazing soprano Cara Rogers Gonzalez, who has no problems with an octave and a fifth. Cara’s website will be going live in a few days, and when it does, Alex Marshall will be able to match her headshot to her singing instead of having to put in J.Lo’s for some reason.

Marshall is thoughtful about the challenge of capturing the character and aspirations of an entire nation in a single song. Yesterday, he wrote on his blog about the transformation of the Marseillaise in the public mind since the Paris attacks last week. “It is like everyone, in France as much as outside it, is once again seeing it for how it was originally written… a symbol of France today, united and defiant, combating tyranny both within its own borders and without.”