Everybody knows “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s our national anthem. We hear it when an American wins a gold medal at the Olympics; we sing it before major league sporting events. It’s almost as familiar as the flag that it’s about. Yet like a lot of familiar things, it has a complicated history, a lot of which they don’t teach us in school.
The United States did not have an official national anthem until 1931. That’s the year that Congress voted to bestow the designation upon “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Before then, we had a variety of songs that people sang on patriotic occasions, which we still have: national anthems, unofficial, and, since 1931, official. How “The Star-Spangled Banner” came to be written, and how it came to be our official national song, are fascinating stories. I’ve learned a lot from Mark Clague’s blogging on the song, and his upcoming book will, I know, bring new details to light.
“Yankee Doodle” had been our first internationally recognized musical emblem. Francis Scott Key had written the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the Battle of Fort McHenry of the War of 1812, in September 1814. A few months later, representatives of the British and the American governments were in Ghent, Belgium, to negotiate the terms of the war’s end. The leader of the town orchestra told Henry Clay, who headed the American delegation, that they would play “God Save the King” in honor of the British, and he asked what they should play to honor the Americans. Clay answered, “Yankee Doodle,” and instructed his valet to whistle the tune for the Ghent orchestra leader. The Belgian musician took the melody down, harmonized it, and taught it to his band.
American soldiers had adopted “Yankee Doodle” as a Revolutionary marching tune in the 1770s. At the time, the idea of a “national anthem” was only a few decades old. “God Save the King” had inaugurated the tradition in 1745, when the British, under threat of invasion by Bonnie Prince Charlie (the grandson of the deposed King James II), sang it to rally people in favor of loyalty to King George II.
That’s why we still sing the anthems: To draw us together in feelings of love toward our country, to give us an occasion to express and share these emotions that belong to our public identities – and not only our public identities, but our private feelings as well. Nothing stirs my blood in quite the same way as “The Star-Spangled Banner” – it’s the one I’ve always sung before watching a baseball or football game or a soccer match.
People have objected to the militarism of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but that’s not how I hear the song. America was under attack. Francis Scott Key watched the Battle of Fort McHenry while on a diplomatic mission to a British ship. He didn’t know whether the fort would fall. The song is riddled with anxiety. Most of the lyrics in the first verse run through the ramifications of a question: Can you see the flag? The rockets and bombs firing away all night mean that the battle is still on – the fort hasn’t fallen, the flag is still there — “O, does that Star-Spangled Banner still wave?”
The other anthems have complex and deeply human stories behind them too. And they all express American values. Like the others, “The Star-Spangled Banner” expresses our ideals. “My Country ’Tis of Thee” sings of freedom ringing from the mountains. “America the Beautiful” preaches brotherhood, the beauty of the landscape, and the bounty of God’s grace. “God Bless America” sings of gratitude toward country, and prays for God’s guidance. “This Land Is Your Land” celebrates the natural world and human resilience, while criticizing inequality and injustice. (The later, not well-known, verses of “America the Beautiful” share a similar critique.) “The Star-Spangled Banner” proclaims our bravery and freedom.
As we celebrate the one hundred and ninety-ninth anniversary of the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I look forward to continuing to learn about our patriotic heritage. Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, it seems that most people can agree that brotherhood, gratitude, the landscape’s beauty, the strength of human resilience, and bravery and freedom are values worth celebrating, and that the songs through which we celebrate them are worth studying. And singing.
John Shaw is the author of This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems, which The Atlantic chose for its list of notable fall books. See http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/09/fall-books-preview-22-notable-new-releases/279344/
Forthcoming in November from PublicAffairs.