Mark Clague Knows Everything About “The Star-Spangled Banner”

From a New York Times review by Peter Sagal of the book by Mark Clague titled “O SAY CAN YOU HEAR?”:

Mark Clague knows everything about “The Star-Spangled Banner,” including how you feel about it.

He knows of every tribute, genuine and forced, and he’s read all the criticisms of the national anthem’s jingoism, its triumphant militarism and its original lyrics’ inclusion of the word “slave,” but not the word “America.” In fact, his knowledge of the song’s history and its uses, benign and otherwise, is so comprehensive that I was surprised he didn’t quote my personal favorite, delivered by Belize in “Angels in America,” when he claims the slaveholder who wrote the national anthem “knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate.”

Clague, an associate professor of musicology and American culture at the University of Michigan, has produced a work so encyclopedic, its chapters can be read per your inclination — if you are most interested in, say, what the anthem has represented to African Americans, turn to Chapter 8, “The Anthem and Black Lives.” But I recommend reading them in order, because doing so also proves the book’s thesis: that, contrary to popular myth, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not forced on Americans by some imperious authority, but chosen by us, en masse and over decades. When Congress proclaimed the song America’s official national anthem in 1931, almost 120 years after its composition, it was acknowledging a battle that had been won long before. The question, which this immensely interesting and readable history sets out to answer, is how that victory was earned.

The lyrics were composed by the lawyer, politician and amateur poet Francis Scott Key while held prisoner by the British in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. The British, having already burned much of Washington, D.C., had turned to Baltimore. The British Navy had brought their most terrifying weapons to bear, the “bomb ships” — those “bombs bursting in air” — and if Fort McHenry were to be neutralized, British troops would freely enter Baltimore, and surely burn it to the ground.

Clague even creates a detailed military map of the engagement to demonstrate how “perilous” that fight really was. The first verse, the only one now sung, ends, as every child knows, with a question:

“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”

In the complete version, Key details his relief at finally seeing the flag, and rejoices in the promise of future victories. But those three verses are rarely sung, and leaving the question unanswered might be the secret to the song’s hold on the American public. It is not an anthem that, like “La Marseillaise,” calls for our enemy’s “impure blood to water our fields.” Rather, it’s a song for a country that is still in the fight, for its existence and its ideals, and it offers an invitation to any and all — the “you” of the first line —- to join that fight, even if in Key’s time the “you” was hardly inclusive.

Contrary to myth — again! — the lyrics were not later set to the tune of a drinking chantey. In fact, Key wrote his lines to fit the popular, pre-existing “Anacreontic Song.” As musical scores were difficult to print, alternative lyrics to known melodies were the primary means of disseminating music. This one had been commissioned by a musical London gentlemen’s club; composer John Stafford Smith had crafted a challenging tune designed to allow soloists to show off their virtuosity. There were countless lyrics set to the melody, one of America’s first viral sensations.

The rise of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from popular hit to de facto and then official national anthem is tied up in war. It became immensely popular in the North during the Civil War, and thus forbidden by the Confederacy, which rejected both the song and the flag. Union prisoners sang it to raise their spirits in Southern camps, and Union brass bands — playing in combat! — deployed it to rally the troops. By World War I, Americans were expressing fervor for the song whether they felt it or not. Geraldine Farrar, a singer with connections to Germany, became the object of fury when she remained seated during the playing of the anthem, perhaps the first American to be threatened with professional extinction for not performing the required genuflection. Soon, she too was belting out the anthem in concert, literally wrapped in a flag.

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