Sunday, November 11, 2001

Today, Veteran’s Day, is not only an opportune time to ponder the holiday’s origin as Armistice Day in World War I or the Great War, as it was called at the time but also to reflect on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem that became so much a part of that era, as well as today’s, especially since September 11.

To be sure, Francis Scott Key’s stanzas were part of America’s repertoire of songs before April 1917, when the nation’s war resolution was effected, but there had been little occasion for most Americans to learn and sing the song.

Without doubt, there was plenty of support for President Woodrow Wilson’s war message; in fact, several states rushed to pass favorable resolutions. Florida’s legislature did so one day after the president made his historic speech, pledging the state’s backing in this hour of crisis.

Another step by various communities was a campaign to make “The Star-Spangled Banner” a required part of every public occasion. In October, 1917, the police commissioner of Providence, R. I., withheld licenses for public concerts unless musicians agreed to play the anthem. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra played it before every concert, as did New York’s Metropolitan Opera, although the Met eventually put its rendition between the various acts.

Not surprisingly in that divisive war controversial because, unlike today’s war against terrorism, America had not been attacked the quest to have “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung at public meetings from baseball games to concerts sometimes went overboard. A Chicago man, for instance, was fined $50 a stiff sum in March 1918 for refusing to rise during playing of the anthem at a concert, and a U. S. Army corporal became big news for a day when he reported how a captured German band was forced to play the anthem for their American captors.

Some Americans were not happy with the song’s musicality, and even the several stanzas fell under critical scrutiny. But on Sept. 14, 1918 the 104th anniversary of Key’s writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” National Anthem Day helped to ensure Americans would know what made the song special was its origin during another controversial war the War of 1812 against Great Britain and that, like other historic documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), some parts of the anthem ought to be put to memory.

More than 100,000 copies of the four stanzas of the song were widely distributed on the day and throughout the land Americans assembled to sing it, with 15,000 participating in front of New York’s City Hall. “Even the pauses between stanzas,” observed one eyewitness, “were made eloquent by the shouts of news boys announcing the victories of the American troops on the Western front.”

By Nov. 11, 1918, when the armistice to World War I was effected, Americans had memorized the words of the national anthem, and a chorus of voices in communities from coast to coast was evidence that Francis Scott Key’s lyrics were now an indelible part of American citizenship, confirming the nation’s historic commitment to Key’s call in his final stanza to “conquer we must, for our cause it is just.”

It took another crisis in the United States to make Congress officially adopt Key’s work as the national anthem. This time, it was economic, as opposed to foreign, affairs. The date for congressional action was March 3, 1931 an era that was overwhelming in terms of its effect on Americans. Like the Great War of 1917 that had nurtured renewal in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Great Depression gave it official approval.

Thomas V. DiBacco, university professor, historian, and author, lives in Palm Beach, Fla.

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