A Cultural Biography of “The Star-Spangled Banner”
by Mark Clague
I can hardly believe the book is done! These 249 pages have been a labor of love for more than a decade. I fully expected when I began starspangledmusic.org that the book would be the first project out of the gate and others would follow. Instead, the opposite turned out to be true. The concerts, recordings, op-eds, and even a football halftime show came first. The book followed and is much better as a result.
It was in conversation with people that I learned even more about the anthem. Questions and comments at every event deepened my understanding, informed the book, and led me to new research efforts. To all of you who helped make this book better, I thank you.
Studying “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been a unique experience for me. Typically as a historian I am exploring some unknown document that sheds light on some common understanding. Key’s song, in contrast, is EVERYWHERE! It is a question of an overwhelming amount of information. Too many sources. Too many stories about the song and its role in American life. The writing took so long in part because I needed time to distill a lot into a compact, narrative package. I had to refine my thinking, clarify my understanding, and communicate a complex set of relationships clearly and directly.
I love “The Star-Spangled Banner” and I hope that comes through in the text. I also believe deeply in my heart that we humans need the arts. We need music as a tool for understanding our world, ourselves, and our relationships to one another. I believe that Key’s song offers a fascinating case study of music’s role in social life. It is a story of how a melody has given voice to ideas both grand and intimate. It is the story of how politics plays with emotion. It is the story of how song can call us to be engaged citizens and inspire us to make our communities, our society, and our nation better for all.