Is it time for another national anthem? New competition lets Americans try to write one

The flyer for the original 1919 national anthem competition. A 20-year-old George Gershwin won an honorable mention and a $25 cash prize.
The flyer for the original 1919 national anthem competition. A 20-year-old George Gershwin won an honorable mention and a $25 cash prize. Mike Morris

If you get tired of hearing the national anthem this Fourth of July, a Sacramento local is giving Americans a chance to write a new one.

In 1919, famous composer George Gershwin won an honorable mention in a national anthem writing contest for a song he composed called "O Land of Mine, America." Now, Michael Morris — graphic designer and Gershwin enthusiast — is putting on a national anthem lyric contest to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Gershwin's little-known song, and give Americans a chance to spruce up the lyrics of the old tune.

The original lyrics, written by Englishman Michael Rourke, feature lines like: "They builded a bridge 'cross the foam, with hand and with heart giving all."

To Morris, the lines sound a bit outdated. So, last October, he announced the lyric-rewriting competition as a way to bring new life to Gershwin's work, and create a song "that would inspire us today, and resonate."

Gershwin is one of the most notable composers in American history. He specialized in jazz, opera and film scores and is most known for his later work, which includes "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris." But Morris has spent the last three years uncovering and recording Gershwin's earlier works, including the song the composer submitted to the national anthem contest.

Morris first read about Gershwin's national anthem in a biography on the composer. It took him nearly a year after that to compile the sheet music and lyrics for Gershwin's original national anthem composition. And the composers national anthem isn't the only thing he's dug up — on Morris' blog, Gershwin 100, he regularly digs up and records Gershwin's older works.

"It's all been a long process of musical archeology," Morris said.

As a result of his digging, readers — or, more aptly, listeners — of his blog have the chance to hear Gershwin songs that haven't been heard in nearly 100 years. Morris likened the feeling of listening to one of Gershwin's old pieces as being in "a special club." The listeners are the "only ones in America who have heard this song who are still alive."

Morris is dedicated to his musical archeology because he's interested in how Gershwin's earlier music informs his later hits.

"Gershwin was so good from such an early age," Morris said. "There's a wealth of material that's gone unheard. I don't want to see these songs just be locked away forever."

To Morris, the competition is not about replacing the current national anthem; it's about giving Americans the opportunity to try to distill their multifaceted country into a couple of stanzas.

"It's not easy to try to encapsulate all of America in one song," Morris said. "(The competition) gives people an outlet to describe the America that they love."

According to Morris, the competition is open to "any American who's willing, who would find it an interesting challenge."

Competitors can email their lyrics to gershwinsanthem@gmail.com up to Nov. 11. The final winner will be announced on March 2 of next year. Finalists will be chosen by a group of both local and national writers and songwriters, and the winner will be determined among those finalists by online voting. The winner will receive sheet music to the song that has their new lyrics on it, and the same prize Gershwin got back in 1919: $25.

Unfortunately, that prize will not be adjusted for inflation.

Morris himself has been trying to write some lyrics of his own, but he's been finding it hard.

"(I'm) just trying to say what America means," he said. "It's not something I think about a lot. To be inspirational and inclusive of all that America represents — it's a tall order."

Related stories from Sacramento Bee