As US president Joe Biden closed out an inaugural address focused on restoring unity to the country and civility to politics, he reached for a deep cut from the American patriotic song catalog to make his point: “American Anthem,” a song written in the late 1990s by composer Gene Scheer.
Biden told the crowd assembled on Jan. 20 that the country was about to write a new chapter in the American story. “[It’s] a story that might sound like a song that means a lot to me,” Biden said. He went on to quote from the first verse and chorus of “American Anthem”:
The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day.
What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?
Let me know in my heart when my days are through
America, America, I gave my best to you.
This isn’t the first time the song has been trotted out during a grand national ceremony. NPR reported that it was sung in both the 1997 and 2001 presidential inaugurations, as well as a 1999 ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution marking the restoration of the original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would become the US national anthem.
American jazz singer Norah Jones recorded a version in 2006 for the Ken Burns PBS documentary series “The War,” chronicling the US involvement in World War II. Denyce Graves, one of former Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s favorite opera singers, performed the song at Ginsburg’s funeral in 2020.
But the song hasn’t saturated American ears in the same way as “God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful.” It isn’t available on Spotify or Apple Music, and has just one (five star!) rating on Amazon Music. The top YouTube version has garnered 320,000 views in the past 12 years.
Scheer told NPR’s Weekend Edition in 2004 that he was inspired to write the song after reading the book Miracle in Philadelphia, about the signing of the constitution. While writing the lyrics, he said he drew on memories of his parents, who met while protesting racial segregation at the YMCA, and his family members who served in World War II. “America has represented in large measure, not completely, lord knows, the aspirations of humanity, the sense of enduring freedom and collective responsibility, responsibility for each other,” he said.
The song resonates deeply with Biden’s core political brand of steady, quiet decency. It also calls to mind the small acts of courage by election officials that led to the certification of the 2020 election results, despite political pressure from the former sitting president.
For those who think they have nothing to share,
Who fear in their hearts there is no hero there,
Know each quiet act of dignity is that which fortifies
The soul of a nation that never dies
Biden closed his speech by echoing the themes of Scheer’s song. “Let us add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of our great nation,” Biden said. “If we do this, then when our days are through, our children and our children’s children will say of us: ‘They gave their best, they did their duty, they healed a broken land.’”
Scheer, for his part, has said he intended the song to be a call to action.
“One of the reasons why people respond to the song is because it reminds people about their responsibility to the country. It triggers something where people feel that they haven’t given enough and they know that in their hearts,” Scheer told NPR. “It was partly a rallying call to myself. It reminded me to get out there and get my hands dirty and do something.”