He called his song ‘American Anthem.’ It actually became one.

Gene Scheer, author of the song "American Anthem," at his home in Washington, Conn., Jan. 21, 2021. When President Joe Biden quoted Scheer's song in his inaugural address, it solidified its transformation from art song to Norah Jones tune on a Ken Burns soundtrack to patriotic hymn.

Gene Scheer, an opera librettist, was at his home in Washington, Connecticut, on Wednesday, ostensibly working but really watching the inauguration, when two words fluttered out of the television and practically knocked him out of his chair.

“I can’t believe this!” he exclaimed out loud, even though he was alone.


Those two words were “American Anthem,” and President Joe Biden was speaking them as he reached the climax of his inaugural address, in which he quoted the song at length and described it as “a song that means a lot to me.”

Scheer, 62, wrote that song.


“I was truly in shock,” he said.

The moment capped the perhaps unlikely transformation of a song that he had the audacity to call “American Anthem” into a bona fide American anthem. After the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves debuted the song in 1998 at the Smithsonian Institution, before an audience that included the Clintons, it became a feature at inaugurations and other ceremonial events. It took on a new life, and reached more listeners, when Norah Jones recorded it for Ken Burns’ 2007 World War II miniseries, “The War.” Last year, Graves sang it as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lay in state at the U.S. Capitol.

Now, an incoming president was citing it in his inaugural address.

It was not a turn of events Scheer ever would have expected.

The song was inspired by a book he had come across in 1997 while helping his parents move. His parents, retired schoolteachers, had met nearly half a century earlier while picketing a New York City YMCA that refused to accept African Americans. The book, “Miracle at Philadelphia,” by Catherine Drinker Bowen, was about the Constitutional Convention; Scheer’s father, Ray, had taught it to his social studies students in Newton, New Jersey, not far from the Pennsylvania border. Scheer read it, was inspired, returned to his 400-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and began writing.

“I wrote the song just thinking about what the country means to me and this balancing act between personal freedom and collective responsibility,” Scheer said. “There’s this kind of wrestling match going on.”

Originally, he envisioned it as a sort of country-pop tune, but he only knew the opera world. Scheer had studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and had originally pursued a career as an opera singer — he is a baritone — before realizing that he was unlikely to hit the big time. “I was like a Triple-A baseball player,” he said. “I couldn’t quite hit the fastball when I got to the major leagues.”

So after writing “American Anthem,” he played it for Graves, one of the leading Carmens of her day, whom he knew from his occasional work at the Metropolitan Opera. She loved it. And ever since she first sang it, she has championed the piece, performing it on television, at President George W. Bush’s second inauguration in 2005 and more recently at the ceremony for Ginsburg.


“I have wanted the world to know Gene for a really long time; he’s so gifted and so generous,” Graves said in an interview.

Scheer recalled getting a call from Burns, the filmmaker, who heard a recording of it while driving across the country.

“He said, ‘I’m doing this documentary on World War II, and I’d love to potentially use the song,’” Scheer said. “I was bowled over.”

But Burns told him that he didn’t hear it as an art song. Scheer replied that he hadn’t originally intended it to be one. Burns enlisted Jones to record it for “The War.”

“I was struck by the song’s message,” Jones said in a statement. “In a post-9/11 era, being ‘patriotic’ was polarizing. This song, however, transcended the mudslinging at the time. It carries such a beautiful sentiment, one that honors the past and commits to the work we have to do going forward. At its core, the song is aspirational.” It’s even more poignant today, she added, “when we are seeing such strong opposition to each other within our own country.”

“I think it really fits with President Biden’s message of unity and collaboration,” she said.


Last year, after singing the work at the service for Ginsburg, Graves met with Vice President Kamala Harris, who was then a senator, and Biden, who told her how touched he was by the song, she recalled.

“I told him it was from my friend Gene Scheer,” she said. “When the president mentioned it in his speech, I nearly fell over. It’s a beautiful way to begin the new year.”

In recent years, Scheer has found success as an opera librettist: He wrote the librettos for Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick,” Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy,” and Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain”; and his works have been performed at the Met Opera, the Royal Opera House in London and on other prestigious stages.

But the success of this song, he said, felt more personal. When Biden quoted it this week, it made him think of his parents, he said, and he wished they had lived to see the inauguration.

“When Biden did this, it felt like I was connecting to my folks in a very meaningful and visceral way,” he said, adding that his mother would have been “ecstatic” to see Harris become vice president and that his parents “would have championed everything Biden was saying.”

Which included these words, from their son’s song:


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.

c.2021 The New York Times Company