Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/06/2010

Harry Truman and “The Star Spangled Banner;” Suzanne Langer and Reinhold Niebuhr: staying abreast of the times.

[Often my posts start with a disclaimer. I’m not sure there’s a point to this.]

Not the Missouri Waltz

Not the Missouri Waltz

Sixty years ago my mother must have owned a copy of “The Missouri Waltz” with Elsie Baker on the cover. At least I always associate Elsie Baker with the song—and for years I’ve had a picture of her in my mind’s eye when I think of the waltz.

Way down in Missouri where I heard this melody,
When I was a little child upon my Mommy’s knee;
The old folks were hummin’; their banjos were strummin’;
So sweet and low.

Among the myths about Harry Truman was that he loved (and played on the piano) “The Missouri Waltz.”  About ten years ago I visited the Truman Library. One of my hopes was to see some of Truman’s piano sheet music. I don’t recall seeing his music, but I have never forgotten the gist of his description of “The Missouri Waltz.”

It’s a ragtime song and if you let me say what I think-I don’t give a damn about it, but I can’t say it out loud because it’s the song of Missouri. It’s as bad as “The Star Spangled Banner” as far as music is concerned. (1)

I’ve never forgotten because he included “The Star Spangled Banner.” I agree with Truman’s assessment of both tunes. “The Star Spangled Banner” as our national anthem is the 1931 version of Congress’ making decisions it is obviously unqualified to make. Truman is right about the music being “bad” (as in unsingable); also, the words are in praise of the flag, rather than extolling the nation. The anthem is a symbolic representation of a symbolic representation, not a symbol of the country itself. Never mind. (At least “The Missouri Waltz,” as the state song of Missouri, mentions Missouri.)

I woke up this morning thinking about “anguish” (as in, I am in a great deal of anguish about much recent news and think I’d do well to find a south seas island to move to—and I must write about something). At the same time “The Missouri Waltz” was playing in my head. What a way to start the day.

Besides a jumble of old songs (can anyone sing “The Missouri Waltz?”), my mind is a jumble of ideas that, forty years ago were au courant and intellectually sophisticated. Today they are outdated and passé. I’m an intellectual fossil.

We have to adapt our peculiarly human mental functions—our symbolic functions—to given limitations, exactly as we must adapt all our biological activities. The mind, like all other organs, can draw its sustenance only from the surrounding world; our metaphysical symbols must spring from reality (2).



Suzanne Langer’s theories about the mind and the symbolic process are not often referenced in current works on those subjects. I’m not sure that’s wise.

. . . .Most people have no home that is a symbol of their childhood, not even a definite memory of one place to serve that purpose. . . All old symbols are gone, and thousands of average lives offer no new materials to a creative imagination. . . .In such a time people are excited about any general convictions or ideals they may have. Numberless hybrid religions spring up, mysteries, causes, ideologies, all passionately embraced and badly argued. A vague longing for the old tribal unity makes nationalism look like salvation, and arouses the most fantastic bursts of chauvinism and self-righteousness. . . the deprecation and distortion of learning. . . systematic purveying of loose, half-baked ideas. . . (3)

This morning I read online about the defeat of Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC—got that? Republican of South Carolina) in the South Carolina Republican primary on June 22. Inglis appeared on CNN on August 5 to talk about the “forces that took him out of office.” Inglis says of one meeting with constituents that,

I sat down, and they said on the back of your Social Security card, there’s a number. That number indicates the bank that bought you when you were born based on a projection of your life’s earnings” – I’m gonna try and not laugh here – and you are collateral. We are all collateral for the banks (4).

When Inglis professed he didn’t know what they were talking about, he says they responded, “You don’t know this?! You are a member of Congress, and you don’t know this?!” He lost his primary bid for reelection by a margin of 79% to 21%.

Is this, in Langer’s terms, failure to adapt “our symbolic functions—to given limitations?” Does that failure result in the “systematic purveying of loose, half-baked ideas?” Observing the news, one can probably say that, for many people, the perceived endless change is destructive of the symbol system of their lives. Perhaps (I have no standing to say this except my observation) anyone who is convinced that Social Security is un-Constitutional, one of the ideas of the anti-government hysteria loose in the country, has no way to comprehend a Federal Court Judge’s overturning of a ban on gay marriage. Their fear becomes an ideology “passionately embraced and badly argued.”

That the symbol system they see being destroyed is, at its root, some form of christianity and patriotism (the two being coterminous) seems like a logical assumption.

I began this writing (the point of which is unclear in my own mind, so I can’t imagine what anyone else might think of it) noting an influence of my mother’s “symbol structure” on my thinking. I’ll close with an influence from my father. Another of those out-of-date thinkers whose work I read many years ago because my father gave me his books to read (my copy is from his library, purchased Kearney, Nebraska, 1951), a much respected if controversial theologian, says

One of the most tragic aspects of human life is that the profoundest truth may become the source or bearer of grievous error. The self-worship of individuals and nations, of civilizations and cultures, may express itself more plausibly through facets of truth. . . than by obviously idolatrous religious ideas. There is therefore never an absolute defense against the corruption of Christian truth through the pride and pretention of nations and cultures (5).

The early post-World War II understanding of history and religion Niebuhr espouses is obviously arcane and puzzling to nearly anyone in the 21st century. I’m not sure trying to understand it is important (and I’m not sure I’m at all interested in christian theology of any century). But somehow, for me, there is comfort in renewing acquaintance with ideas that formed my thinking forty years ago. Such remembrance helps me to relax a bit and see a bigger picture than I can see if I think only about the Tea Party. Old ideas may, in fact, be helpful ideas.

It’s much easier to think and write about “The Missouri Waltz” than about the—shall I say, bizarre—political verbiage rampant in this country. I’d rather sit down at the piano with an uninspired melody by John Valentine Eppel, arranged by Frederick Knight Logan than ponder the unfathomable discourse I hear on the news. I’ll take Langer and Niebuhr over Palin and Pelosi any day.
(1) “Truman Trivia Collection.” Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. March 19, 2010. Web. 5 Aug. 2010. <>.
(2) Langer, Suzanne K.. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Third Ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 1970 (291).
(3) ibid. 292.
(4) Kleefeld, Eric. “GOP Rep. Inglis Tells CNN About Crazy Right-Wingers Who Ousted Him.” TPMMuckraker. August 5, 2010. Web. 6 Aug. 2010.
(5) Niebuhr, Reinhold. Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949 (196).


  1. The US is not the only country which had its congress (or equivalent organisation) choose its anthem.

    The Australian people were asked, in the 1970s, to choose an anthem. They were also asked to write out their own for a competition. There were many idealistic lyrics shared.

    The Australian Council of the Arts decided – as those who often make literary and artistic prizes do – that none of the anthems the people put up were good enough.

    The choices included Waltzing Matilda, Song of Australia, God Save the Queen (the British colonial anthem) and Advance Australia Fair.

    In the end – 1984 – Advance Australia Fair became the National Anthem of Australia.

    Australians usually only sing the first verse, sometimes the second. There are 5.

    My very favourite lyric is “Girt by sea”. I had asked a teacher to explain it to me, and she said it meant “surrounded”.

    Yes, this is a very important part of “Reason, Rite and Art”, to quote the title of Susanne Langer’s book.

    (Named one of my linguist-aspirant characters after Susanne, such was her influence on me through James Britton).

    * * *

    About “praising the flag” versus honouring the nation.

    Does not the Pledge of Allegiance do this also?

    * * *

    You said: “Observing the news, one can probably say that, for many people, the perceived endless change is destructive of the symbol system of their lives.”

    * * *

    Perhaps Niebuhr is better understood with post-war austerity Britain in mind.

    In our century we have perhaps lots of idle idols!

    Really enjoyed reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Constance Garnett translation!) and there was a good quote I’d like to share:

    “No. Some mathematician has said that enjoyment lies in the search for truth, not the finding of it”. Levin said this in chapter 14, part 2.



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