How did you become interested in Francis Scott Key as a songwriter?
My girls used to ask me to sing “O say can you see” as a bedtime song. I worked up the first verse in a minor key and liked how it sounded. The dark tone seemed to fit the two questions of verse one as Key would have asked them that morning, rather than the rhetorical way they are sung today with the flag in full view. To test that idea, I started
researching the story of the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That’s when I found the collection of Key’s poetry published in 1857—Poems of the Late Francis Scott Key, esq.
Describe your Francis Scott Key Songs project…
In 2012 I started appearing in costume as Francis Scott Key to recite his stories and verse from “Poems.” Key wrote poems to document events, celebrate his faith, and make his friends laugh. A few were written as song or hymn lyrics, and those I sang from the beginning, but I really started with a spoken word vision; with storytelling rather than music.
As I studied the poems, one after another became a song. Putting together a CD from Key’s poetry seemed a way to share his heart and life with people today who favor music over poetry. I really have no desire to be known from this or launch a recording career. I just want people today to have the opportunity to know Francis Scott Key through his
poems. Thanks to several friends donating their talents that opportunity now exists in the form of Francis Scott Key: Songs from the Author of the Star-Spangled Banner. It is musically eclectic to the point of defying genre classification, but to paraphrase Key: “The
songs, I know, came from the heart, and if they make their way to the hearts of men and women devoted to their country and to the great cause of freedom, I could not pretend to be insensible to such a compliment.”
How do you go about your detective work to locate Key’s songs?
They all start with a poem from the book. When I like a poem and know or suspect it to have been a song at some point, I search for it in hymn databases and such. Someday I’d love to peruse the physical archives in Maryland, but for now the internet serves. I prefer scans of older songbooks and hymnals and I’m grateful to have those resources online. There are poems that seem likely to have been written as song lyrics that I’ve yet to find paired with music, such as “Bear Song” and “Sunday School Celebration.” Others have been published with one or more tunes that I don’t personally care for, and then there are the poems that have never been songs before. In these cases I have either paired the poem
with period music or written my own tunes.
How do you create the music to accompany these forgotten songs?
The music follows the poem. At first I thought any music I used needed to be from Key’s time, so that it at least could have been on his mind when he wrote the words. “Bear Song” and “Efficacy of Prayer” are examples. That changed one morning as I practiced reciting “Petition for a Habeas Corpus” and, without warning, started to rap it. I’m not a big fan of hip hop music, but it just fit the poem. I realized it might be a way to demonstrate that in the 1800’s Key’s poems were set to the popular music of his time. Since then I haven’t been as concerned with when the music originated as with how it suits Key’s poem. I never look for a F. S. Key poem that fits a style of music. I wait for a melody to come that fits the poem that’s on my mind. And I’m really grateful that, so far, only one of them is a rap song!
What do you think are Key’s strengths as a lyricist?
He’s vulnerable. He exposes his heart “To Mary,” to his readers, and to God. He’s whimsical, often valuing a smile from his reader over critics’ accolades. And somehow, though thou woulds’t toil to grasp the words thine eyes bring thee and heav’n knows what words coulds’t lose a syllable to an apostrophe, Key is relatable. We’d like to meet Mrs. Potts and, even more than that to hear her guitar, we desire “her kind and gentle words to hear; The calm contented face to see.” We understand today what kind of troubles come at us “wave on wave,” even if we don’t know what the word “efficacy” means. Key’s not so different from you and I, and I think a good song is often a sort of mirror.
What do you think people need to know to better understand Francis Scott
They need to know his poetry to understand him: his humor, faith, fears, and hope. Knowing the charities he championed is insightful as well: The American Bible Society, The American Sunday School Union, two seminaries, free schools, the Colonization Society. But I realize most people will only know him as the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On that fateful September morning, Key did something normal for him: he wrote a poem about his immediate circumstances. The four verses tell a story capturing his emotions: painful suspense, joyful triumph, anthems of joy. Some simplify Key as an unwaveringly pro-American patriot, but they ignore his moral protests of The War of 1812 and his near-elation over U.S. defeats when we unsuccessfully invaded Canada. So how could the pious Key expect a just God to intervene on behalf of Baltimore, where the “abominable war” was not only celebrated, but funded? Francis Scott Key did not see the city of Baltimore receive the fair punishment he believed it deserved. Instead Key saw what he wanted: Mercy. A month later Key wrote to a close friend “I hope I shall never cease to feel the warmest gratitude when I think of this most merciful deliverance. It seems to have given me a higher idea of the ‘forbearance, long suffering and tender mercy’ of God, than I had ever before conceived.” His revelation of a just but loving God seems more important to Francis Scott Key than his having written an already popular song, which he doesn’t bother to mention in that letter, and seldom spoke of publically for the rest of his life. He gives the impression of being embarrassed by the fame “The Star-Spangled Banner” brought him, but he never shrank from using the attention to point his admirers to the God who surprised him the morning of September 14, 1814.
Originally from Ohio, Ruben Bolton earned degrees from Bowling Green State University in Music Education and the University of Missouri in Mechanical Engineering. He works in engineering in Columbia Missouri.
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