Friday, July 5, 2013

The Unknown "Star Spangled Banner"

As yesterday was our Independence Day, I am drawn to remember that the renderings of our national anthem on that day, more common than usual, mark an example of what John Stuart Mill might consider our "degraded state of … patriotic feeling."  Leaving aside one's taste in the variety of musical arrangements, I am writing here of the lack of understanding of the full meaning and text of what we know now as the Star Spangled Banner.  First, allow me to flesh out some background:

The restored flag of Fort McHenry at the Smithsonian Institution

Francis Scott Key was a popular lawyer in and around Baltimore during the time of the War of 1812 when he was deputized in September 1814 to negotiate the release of American captives from the British.  He and John Stuart Skinner set sail upon a sloop under a flag of truce and were accepted by the British Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane and Major General Robert Ross aboard HMS Tonnant in Chesapeake Bay.  While the negotiations were subsequently successful, the two Americans were temporarily detained by the British since in the process they had also become privy to the British plans for the assault on Baltimore.  Key and Skinner were moved to HMS Surprise (note to fans of Patrick O'Brian) and then back to their original sloop of HMS Minden, from whence they viewed the bombardment of Fort McHenry through the night of 13/14 September.  (Fort McHenry was commanded by Major George Armistead, uncle of the future Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead of the Battle of Gettysburg.  Both died soon after the battles due to the effects of the fighting, the younger the more so, and they are buried alongside each other.)
Francis Scott Key
The bombardment ended up being ineffective, but that would not have been known by those observing it at the time, for the effect was quite astounding.  The British were experimenting with rockets and exploding bombs during the attack, and the psychological effect, for what it was worth, was quite dramatic and an early example of 'shock and awe'. 

Key was apprehensive as he watched the bombardment through the night and was much relieved by the dim sunlight of the morning when he perceived through the fog and smoke that the American flag commissioned by Armistead was still flying over the fort.  A poet by avocation, he was moved to pen some notes on the back of a letter, which he finished as a complete poem, the Defense of Fort McHenry, the morning after he returned to shore and the American lines.
Fort McHenry today
Key had appended a note for the printer that the poem, if sung, should be done to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven, a popular melody of the day.  Much was made of that fact during the Bicentennial of the 1970s, during the Age of Aquarius and the pop revisionism that held that practically anything American could not be good.  The tune was labeled a drinking song and used as an excuse to deride the national anthem – I remember among examples a television 're-enactment' of a street scene of the time after the battle, with actors in period costume drunkenly belting out the tune while swaying with tankards of ale.  In fact, the original song was commissioned by a gentlemen's society of amateur musicians in London and though it contained veiled references to the benefits of wine and the ladies, it is foremost a salute to the camaraderie of the "sons of Anacreon", an ancient Greek poet.  By the time of Key and well before copyrights, the melody was popular and had been ascribed to any number of songs, including patriotic tributes to John Adams and Stephen Decatur, and even later used by Puccini as part of an aria in Madama Butterfly.  Due to its range of an octave and a half, I find it laughable that any occasion worth its salt would expect people to gather round the piano and their cups to perform a lustily rendered version of the song. 

The finished product was given to Captain Benjamin Eades, who had copies printed and hastened with one to a nearby tavern where he knew he could find the body of actors from the Holliday Street Theater.  Ferdinand Durang was encouraged to perform the new song and thus mounted a chair to sing it to the assembled crowd for the first time. 

The song quickly became popular and over the years became the unofficial national anthem.  Being such, there were a few variations in the melody that was eventually standardized in 1917 as a result of a panel, including John Phillip Sousa, assembled by request of President Woodrow Wilson.  Years later, partly as a result of an appeal by the same John Phillip Sousa, and contrary to the spirit of tradition, the song was officially made the national anthem by act of Congress in 1931. 

The vast majority of Americans are completely unaware, I am sure, that the words to the Star Spangled Banner extend beyond the eight lines with which they are accustomed – there are four stanzas, not just one.  For that matter, they are only dimly aware of what the words are, much less what they really mean.  Here's a party trick: ask your friends to recite – not sing – the words.  Few are able, for those of us who sing it have become used to doing so in company of others and thereby are carried along, almost unconsciously, by the collective memory of the crowd.  A Harris poll in 2004 found that 61% of those surveyed could not remember all the words, and only 39% could complete the third line.  As for their meaning, few understand that the words they sing are not a declaration, but an unanswered question: 

     O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
     What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
     Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
     O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
     And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
     Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
     O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
     O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave? 

Again, the "rockets' red glare" and the noise they produced had a dramatic effect yet they were notoriously inaccurate.  Besides the psychological aspect against troops in the open (they were used with some effect in driving off the small contingent of the American army and militia – but not the Marines and sailors –at the Battle of Bladensburg the previous month), they had been marginally effective against area targets but practically useless in this case against point targets such as those at Fort McHenry and the nearby North Point.  The drawback of the bombs can be found in the song, for bombs of that time weren't supposed to burst in air, they were supposed to burst on target.  The unreliable fusing of the bombs and the errant rockets, to a great extent responsible for the failure of the British naval assault, spelled their last real use. 

As to the rest of the song, it is the next stanza that answers the question, reflecting Keys' joy at beholding the flag still flying at dawn: 

     On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
     Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
     What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
     As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
     Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
     In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
     'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
     O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave. 

And was the enemy, with their mercenaries and indentured conscripts, defeated in this contest?  Yes indeed: 

     And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
     That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
     A home and a country, should leave us no more?
     Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
     No refuge could save the hireling and slave
     From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
     And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
     O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave. 

But it is the final stanza that carries the most import, that sums up the patriotic resolution that finds its source in the God who has founded and preserved such a new nation.  And that is one of its greatest detriments to a revival of the true meaning: 

     O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
     Between their loved home and the war's desolation.
     Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
     Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
     Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
     And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
     And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
     O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave! 

Free men defending their homes and family; our land rescued by Heaven and its Power; just war; "In God we trust"?  These were such easily accepted and understood concepts in times past, yet are so controversial today.  Even our current president has deleted references to God in quoting the Preamble to the Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance early in his term, as well as skipping out of the National Day of Prayer. 

The only portrayed reference I have found of the extended version of the song was a portion of the last stanza performed by Arnold McCuller in the movie version of The Sum of All Fears, otherwise known for its believable rendition of what an atomic bomb exploding in a city would look like, but most particularly in its changing of the terrorists from Arabs to some sort of European neo-Nazis, likely due to taking a knee at the insistence of CAIR.  (Tom Clancy, sitting alongside the director during an interview popularizing the upcoming film, pointedly introduced himself as the man who wrote the book that the director ignored.)
The national anthem is difficult to sing, truly, but the current pop culture – and is there any other type of culture portrayed by the mainstream media? – is nevertheless content to let the ignorance, willful or otherwise, of this portion of our heritage lie fallow.


  1. "...taking a knee at the insistence of CAIR."

    Heh. Well, Egypt is showing them what taking a knee for CAIR is worth these days. Loved the signs: "Obama, you idiot..."

    The anthem never sounded much like a drinking song to me. As anthems go, I don't like it much. Too martial. Too hard to sing.

    My favorite is Hatika, The Hope," Israel's, of course.

    As for this old American culture, I remember it well. I never thought it would do anything but grow old and moldy. Had no idea it would disappear the way it has. It does seem to be long gone, but who knows? It still has power. Maybe that's why its detractors hate it so much.

  2. Considering that Obama backed the "democratic election" that resulted in Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood against Mubarak, he's got some explaining to do with the Egyptian same, and they don't have a press that will try to white wash the problem.

    Hard to sing, yes. Too martial - I respectfully disagree. We should be reminded that we don't simply inherit our liberty each generation, but it usually has to be fought for against some new enemy. Weakness has always been a temptation to them. But it is stirring, that power of which you speak, and never fails to have an effect on me. But you can't go into battle with it - it's a waltz, not a march.

  3. That's a good point, the tune reminding people of the Revolution. A waltz, eh? Heh. I never thought of it that way. As for Wormtongue. He never explains. Just keeps on spewing platitudes and assorted lies.

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