Our National Anthems

We have trouble with national anthems.

Before The Star Spangled Banner was declared the national anthem by Congress and Hoover in 1931, the country used Hail Columbia, which was composed in 1789 for George Washington’s inauguration. It is now used to announce the Vice-President. And it’s pretty terrible.

Here’s Steve Santoro doing what he can with it. Bless him, for hardly anybody will take it on.

When I was a kid in grade school we always sang the alternate version of the British national anthem, God Save the Queen, which we learned as My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. That’s a much better song, but we can’t use the same song as the British, now, can we?

I do love that back in 1939 Marian Anderson, who had been denied permission to perform at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because of her color, was invited by Harold Ickes, at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, to perform it at the Lincoln Memorial.

Yankee Doodle Dandy also comes to mind, but let’s get serious. Recognizing its emblematic status, in 1931 Congress and President Hoover declared The Star Spangled Banner as our national anthem. And regretfully it is a terribly difficult song to sing well. It is based on an old British drinking song and most of us probably have to be inebriated to think we can carry it off.

Anacreon In Heaven

Joseph Byrd argues, “It actually makes a very good drinking song, with its dramatic caesura followed by the tipsy high tenor note on the last phrase. The middle part, which strains the vocal range of ordinary mortals, was intended to be amusing. Where we sing ‘And the rockets’ red glare,’ the original song had the Athenian poet Anacreon calling down from heaven in an effete falsetto, ‘Voice, fiddle, and flute, no longer be mute, I’ll lend ye my name, and inspire ye, t’boot!'”

We’re so put off by the difficulty in singing our anthem that too often we stand silently and allow those with greater vocal talents to attempt it on our behalf. I’d frankly prefer that we just butcher it in unison and not treat its performance like a talent show!

Many have suggested alternate songs for our anthem, such as Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.

Others suggest America The Beautiful which, like The Star Spangled Banner, started out as a poem. Katharine Lee Bates had been inspired by Pikes Peak and Samuel A. Ward’s hymn, Materna, was fitted to the words later on. Many like Ray Charles’ take on it.

And then there’s the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, which also started out as a poem back in 1900 and, like We Shall Overcome, was literally an instrumental part of the civil rights movement.

I’d suggest This Land Is Your Land for our anthem, but I realize it isn’t regal enough, and some folks would no doubt object to Woody Guthrie’s politics.

In the end, we all recognize our nation’s anthem as The Star Spangled Banner. At least the Mormon Tabernacle Choir can do it justice.

That’s only the first and fourth verses. In fairness I should offer up a defense of our anthem, so here’s famed writer Isaac Asimov, and a review of ALL of its verses:

In 1812, the United States went to war with Great Britain, primarily over freedom of the seas. We were in the right. For two years, we held off the British, even though we were still a rather weak country. Great Britain was in a life and death struggle with Napoleon. In fact, just as the United States declared war, Napoleon marched off to invade Russia. If he won, as everyone expected, he would control Europe, and Great Britain would be isolated. It was no time for her to be involved in an American war.

At first, our seamen proved better than the British. After we won a battle on Lake Erie in 1813, the American commander, Oliver Hazard Perry, sent the message “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” However, the weight of the British navy beat down our ships eventually. New England, hard-hit by a tightening blockade, threatened secession.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was beaten in Russia and in 1814 was forced to abdicate. Great Britain now turned its attention to the United States, launching a three-pronged attack. The northern prong was to come down Lake Champlain toward New York and seize parts of New England. The southern prong was to go up the Mississippi, take New Orleans and paralyze the west. The central prong was to head for the mid-Atlantic states and then attack Baltimore, the greatest port south of New York. If Baltimore was taken, the nation, which still hugged the Atlantic  coast, could be split in two. The fate of the United States, then, rested to a large extent on the success or failure of the central prong.

The British reached the American coast, and on August 24, 1814, took Washington, D. C. Then they moved up the Chesapeake Bay toward Baltimore. On September 12, they arrived and found 1000 men in Fort McHenry, whose guns controlled the harbor. If the British wished to take Baltimore, they would have to take the fort.

On one of the British ships was an aged physician, William Beanes, who had been arrested in Maryland and brought along as a prisoner. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and friend of the physician, had come to the ship to negotiate his release. The British captain was willing, but the two Americans would have to wait. It was now the night of September 13, and the bombardment of Fort McHenry was about to start.

As twilight deepened, Key and Beanes saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. Through the night, they heard bombs bursting and saw the red glare of rockets. They knew the fort was resisting and the American flag was still flying. But toward morning the bombardment ceased, and a dread silence fell. Either Fort McHenry had surrendered and the British flag flew above it, or the bombardment had failed and the American flag still flew.

As dawn began to brighten the eastern sky, Key and Beanes stared out at the fort, trying to see which flag flew over it. He and the physician must have asked each other over and over, “Can you see the flag?”

After it was all finished, Key wrote a four stanza poem telling the events of the night. Called “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” it was published in newspapers and swept the nation. Someone noted that the words fit an old English tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” –a difficult melody with an uncomfortably large vocal range. For obvious reasons, Key’s work became known as “The Star Spangled Banner,” and in 1931 Congress declared it the official anthem of the United States.

Now that you know the story, here are the words. Presumably, the old doctor is speaking. This is what he asks Key:

Oh! 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 rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.

Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

“Ramparts,” in case you don’t know, are the protective walls or other elevations that surround a fort. The first stanza asks a question. The second gives an answer:

On the shore, dimly seen thro’ the mist 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 on the stream

‘Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

“The towering steep” is again, the ramparts. The bombardment has failed, and the British can do nothing more but sail away, their mission a failure.

In the third stanza, I feel Key allows himself to gloat over the American triumph. In the aftermath of the bombardment, Key probably was in no mood to act otherwise.

During World War II, when the British were our staunchest allies, this third stanza was not sung. However, I know it, so here it is:

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 footstep’s 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.

The fourth stanza, a pious hope for the future, should be sung more slowly than the other three and with even deeper feeling:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,

Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n – rescued land

Praise the Pow’r 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 doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I hope you will look at the national anthem with new eyes. Listen to it, the next time you have a chance, with new ears.

And don’t let them ever take it away.

–Isaac Asimov,  March 1991

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife, Wendy, and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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