A test: Explain in common language the meaning of
On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists 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?
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 wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
A bit of History. . . just a bit
Francis Scott Key was a reasonably well-known young lawyer living in Georgetown, just a few miles from the Capitol, the White House, and the Federal buildings of Washington. In 1812, war had erupted between Great Britain and the newly created United States over the latter’s outrage at the seizure of thousands of American sailors, frustration at British restraints on neutral trade while Britain was fighting the French, and anger at British support for Indian attacks along the northern border of the United States which conflicted with American expansion and settlement
William Beanes was a local official in the town of Upper Marlboro, Maryland who had placed two drunken British soldiers under arrest. One of the prisoners escaped and shortly thereafter a small force saw to it that the other was released; they also arrested Beanes. Key was retained to secure the release of Beanes who, as a non-combatant, had no reason for a military arrest and confinement on a British ship. (People were much more sensitive to the distinction between civil and military confinement in those days!)
Key was able to retrieve Beanes, but because the British were preparing to bombard Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, his ship was detained
Anchored eight miles from the Fort, Key waited for the British to wage and finish their attack on the Fort. The ships used long-range, high-trajectory guns to fire at the fort. Though it tried to return fire, the Fort’s cannon were too small to reach the attackers. The attack proceeded through the night and the Americans waited on the detained ship to see if the fort had been captured. As dawn broke, Key watched the fort through a telescope. And saw the large flag still flying over the fort.
What Key and Beanes did not know was that the British land assault on Baltimore as well as the naval attack, had been abandoned. Judging Baltimore as being too costly a prize, the British officers had ordered a retreat.
Being an amateur poet and having been inspired by the sight of the United States flag, Key began to write on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. Sailing back to Baltimore he composed more lines and later in Baltimore. finished the poem. His brother-in-law, took it to a printer and copies were circulated around Baltimore under the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. To the verses was added a note “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven.”
That “tune” was well known on both sides of the Atlantic. It was the official song of the Anacreon Society, a club of amateur musicians. It has been associated with drinking and eroticism, but, for the purposes here, it should be noted that it was commonly used as a sobriety test: If you could sing a stanza of the notoriously difficult melody and stay on key, you were sober enough for another round.
How did this archaic poem, coupled with an impossible song, become our “National Anthem”?
While the Star Spangled Banner is difficult to sing, if not impossible, there is no dispute that the melody, when set in 4/4 March Tempo, is a stirring musical number for bands. During the nineteenth century, bands played it at ceremonial functions and patriotic events, such as Fourth of July celebrations. In 1889, the Navy making the Star Spangled Banner the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag, In 1916, President Wilson ordered that the song be played at military and other ceremonial occasions.
In 1897, the Star Spangled Banner (not yet the “National Anthem”) was played at Opening Day ceremonies at a baseball game in Philadelphia and starting the following year in New York’s Polo Grounds. It is now performed before each baseball and football game. The music is, I acknowledge, stirring, but the last line is inevitably obscured by the crowd’s cheers, anxious for the game to start or, perhaps, just relieved that the singer has finally finished.
President Wilson had issued an Executive Order giving official status to the Star Spangled Banner and, in 1931, Congressed passed a law declaring, for once and for all, established it as the National Anthem.
Let’s replace it.
Whatever its former popularity, the Star Spangled Banner has since lost its hold on the public. A recent Harris poll showed that 61 percent of American adults admit they do not know all the words, and most who think they do really don’t. (The second, third, and fourth verses are practically unknown.) Among teenagers, according to an ABC News poll, 38 percent don’t know the song’s name!
In the next part of this article, I will suggest replacements