Study Guide

The Star-Spangled Banner Meaning

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We've all strained to hit the high notes—dropped down an octave at "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air." And we've all seen some professional singer (Christina Aguilera, Michael Bolton, Anita Baker) butcher the song—miss some note, forget or mangle some line that, to be fair, sounds a lot like another.

But it's America's anthem, deeply embedded in national history, and we accept the challenge of singing the song as part of the American experience. Many students start their school day with an a cappella rendition. Every four years we proudly watch American athletes accept Olympic Gold and then smile and cry through a playing of the song. And a baseball game just doesn’t seem right unless “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been sung.

The song is as American as baseball (literally) and apple pie, and for many, the song is almost as sacred “mom.” When Christina Aguilera botched the words at the 2011 Super Bowl, viewers screamed for her head. Yet for all the song’s iconic status, it's only been America's national anthem since 1931. Before that, "Hail Columbia" was usually played at ceremonial events. And "My Country 'tis of Thee" was commonly sung at public celebrations. Moreover, the history of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is not exactly unblemished. Americans may view the song as a glorious part of their national heritage, but the song’s actual history is, shall we say, more complicated.

Francis Scott Key and the War of 1812

Georgetown lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key—second cousin three times removed and namesake of 20th century author F. Scott Fitzgerald—wrote the words to our nation’s favorite song to feign knowledge of the lyrics. He was onboard a British ship during their attack on Fort McHenry outside of Baltimore during the War of 1812. Americans had only enjoyed their independence for a little over 30 years when they found themselves at war, once again, with Britain. The primary cause was British interference with American shipping on the Atlantic Ocean. For the first couple years of the war, things did not go well for the Americans. In fact, Key was onboard the British ship to negotiate the release of some civilians seized shortly after the British captured and then burned the White House and much of the nation’s capital at Washington, D.C.

Key's diplomatic mission was successful; the British agreed to release the prisoners. But as the British were now preparing to attack Fort McHenry, they refused to permit any of the Americans to go ashore until after the battle. As British ships opened fire on the American fort guarding Baltimore Harbor at dawn on September 13, Key watched from the deck of the HMS Minden. He anxiously tried to gauge the damage done to the American fort as British ships launched shell after shell. As the sun began to set, he could still see the American flag flying over the fort, and as twilight turned to dark of night, he was able to catch periodic glimpses of the American flag illuminated by exploding rockets. Just before dawn, though, the British suspended their bombardment, leaving Key unable to see if the flag still stood. At "dawn's early light," however, he was able to see the flag still flying that he had seen “at the twilight's last gleaming."

The British also saw the flag and realized that their attack had failed. As they withdrew down the Potomac, Key began to write a poem about all that he had seen. After he was put ashore, he completed the four-verse piece while the citizens of Baltimore celebrated the successful defense of their city.

"The Star-Spangled Banner” as a Patriotic Song

The song's lyrical history is national anthem appropriate—a dramatic moment captured by an inspired witness. The melody, however, has very different origins. It's not exactly clear who set Key's words to music. Some say it was Key; others say it was his brother-in-law, Joseph Nicholson. Either way, someone attached the poet's words to what must have seemed like a suitable tune—a popular, high brow sounding ode dedicated "To Anacreon in Heaven," aka "The Anacreontic Song." The title sounds inspiring, but it’s deceptive; Anacreon was an ancient Greek writer famous for his poetry celebrating wine, women, and song—something of a sixth-century B.C. sex, drugs, and rock and roll guy. And the song dedicated to him was written by a member of London's Anacreontic Society, a men's club that shared its namesake's party-hearty values.

So in essence, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a patriotic poem attached to an English drinking song. And this explains a lot. For starters, the song is a whole lot easier to sing after a few Anacreontic belts. Moreover, the familiarity of the tune helped Key's song spread rapidly among the tavern crowd. But the song's shaky melodic background may also explain why no one initially proposed making "The Star-Spangled Banner" America's national anthem. "Hail Columbia," composed for George Washington's inauguration in 1789, continued to be played at ceremonial events. (Today, it's still used as the entrance march for the Vice President of the United States – listen to an instrumental version here.) In fact, throughout the 19th century, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was just one of several patriotic songs sung on public holidays.

By the end of the century, though, the US military had all but adopted the song as its anthem. In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy ordered the "The Star-Spangled Banner" played when the flag was raised for ceremonial events. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson accompanied his proclamation that June 14 be set aside as "Flag Day"—a day on which Americans rededicate themselves to "the mission of liberty and justice to which we have devoted ourselves as a people"—with an order that "The Star-Spangled Banner" be performed at public events. And in 1931, Congress turned Wilson's executive order into law, making "The Star-Spangled Banner" the United States' national anthem.

While the song may be old, it has only been the nation's "official" anthem for about sixty years. Moreover, while the words may be gloriously American, the tune is English. And while not exactly "Gin & Juice," "The Anacreontic Song" would hardly get approved today without major objections from MADD.

The National Anthem Today

All of this questionable history makes you sort of wonder about some of the hubbub surrounding certain performances of the song over the past forty years. More than one performer has set off a controversy by altering the musical arrangement or the words of what many have come to see as a "sacred" song.

For example, in 1968, after his rendition of "Light My Fire" shot to the top of the charts, José Feliciano was invited to sing the national anthem before game five of the World Series. The singer and guitarist delivered a powerful but unorthodox rendition of the song, leading many to scream foul.

Feliciano was surprised by the response. "I set out to sing an anthem of gratitude to a country that had given me a chance,” he recalled, “that had allowed me, a blind kid from Puerto Rico -- a kid with a dream -- to reach far above my own limitations." To embed this personal statement within a public song, he played "The Star-Spangled Banner" slowly. And to add more dramatic tension to the tune, he worked in some minor chords. Surprisingly to him, many responded to these innovations with outrage. Veterans groups, in particular, protested his hijacking of a national treasure. Some critics questioned the appropriateness of a Puerto Rican taking center stage before the premier event of America's pastime. Radio stations pulled his records off the air; some concert halls refused to book the now tainted performer.

Since then, the American public seems to have grown a bit more tolerant. At the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, Marvin Gaye delivered a soul-infused rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Yet the singer who had presented one of the most compelling reflections on social turmoil during the 1960s—"What's Going On"—and who had just scored a hit with "Sexual Healing," did not draw much flack for his smoky rendition of the national anthem.

In 2008, Rene Marie demonstrated that an unorthodox performance of the song could still generate controversy. The jazz singer opened a Denver civic event with a conventional musical arrangement of the anthem, but she dumped the familiar lyrics for a different set written by James Weldon Johnson. Most of the people in her audience may not have recognized these words, but they were from "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the "African American National Anthem," adopted by the NAACP in 1919.

Marie was immediately denounced. Colorado's governor labeled her performance "disrespectful," and others complained that she had selfishly dishonored a "sacred" text. Marie was unfazed by the criticism. "Maybe it's sacred to you,” she said, “but it's not sacred to me."

Marie's response served as a reminder that, while "The Star-Spangled Banner" may be a part of America's history, this history is complicated. "The guy, the dude who wrote it," Marie reminded her critics, "he's a slave owner." Had she wanted to push the argument further, she might have added that the President who elevated the song to anthem status, Woodrow Wilson, had once portrayed the KKK as noble defenders of Southern order and morality. In his two-volume history of the US, he had written that "the white men were roused by a mere instinct of self preservation . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country."

So where does that leave us today? Does the tavern background of "The Star-Spangled Banner" make it inappropriate for a national anthem? Does the fact that Francis Scott Key owned slaves or that Woodrow Wilson was possibly racist leave the song incapable of serving as a truly national anthem? Should a national anthem be a song that all Americans can embrace (and easily sing)—a song with an uncluttered past that does not offend any sector of the public? Does such a song exist? (“This Land Is Your Land” was written by a Communist; “America the Beautiful” was written by a Russian immigrant; “My Country ‘tis of Thee” stole its music from the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen.”)

These questions are tough, perhaps too tough to ever draw a united response. Maybe we would be better off without a national anthem. Are anthems even necessary?

Many would argue that they are necessary and that it's a good thing that some people are so adamantly attached to theirs. In the years following the American Revolution, many worried that the new government would fail because Americans lacked a sense of national identity. For a long time, the residents of the New World had seen themselves as Englishmen or Scots or New Yorkers or Virginians. Without a common sense of national identity, and without the shared customs and symbols—songs, holidays, monuments, heroes—that reinforced this sense of identity, the new nation would collapse.

These worriers would be happy to find so many patriots firmly attached to the national anthem and dedicated to the idea that certain "national treasures" should be fiercely protected. But others might argue that the United States was born from revolution and that "freedom of expression" is also a national treasure. Without a certain innovative spirit running through America's history, we might still be singing "God Save the Queen."

America is served by both positions. Symbols and icons like "The Star-Spangled Banner" are important pieces of national identity that help tie the nation together. But freedom of expression and tolerance are foundational principles; without them, America is not America. Anacreon would probably drink to that.

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