- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) - It’s hard to sing, its wording is old-fashioned and it commemorates an obscure battle in an obscure war.

Then how is it that “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the national anthem loved - and not so loved - by millions of Americans? It’s a question that Marc Ferris sought to answer in a new book timed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the song written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812. (The anthem was written in September 1814.)

Ferris’ love of history, music and storytelling come together between the covers of, “Star-Spangled Banner, The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem,” where he delves into the rich history behind the often-controversial song.

“No one had written a history of it,” said Ferris, who lives in Glenville. “No one had looked at the use of it politically, and the way it played out culturally. Then there’s the economics of patriotism; there’s the way it gets turned into a kind of civil religion.”

Ferris, a freelance writer who works in public relations, traces the musical ingredients behind the anthem, such as its memorable melody.

“Is it a drinking song?” Ferris asks, noting one of the many half-myths that have arisen behind the story of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

It is a drinking song, it turns out, but a very upper-crust drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which pays tribute to a high-end gentleman’s club in London.

“When Prohibition came along, people said it should not be the anthem because of its booze-soaked antecedents,” Ferris said during a recent interview.

The anthem has seen many other detractors. It’s too warlike. It was written by a slaveholder. It’s notoriously challenging for singers.

“It is hard to sing, but when have Americans ever shied away from a challenge?” Ferris said. “And it’s bold. It captures a euphoric moment. It has gravitas. It has history.”

“The Star-Spangles Banner” vied with other songs like “Hail, Columbia,” ”My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful” through the years as the go-to song for patriotic occasions. It was eventually chosen as the national anthem in 1931, at a time when the country yearned for uplifting national symbols.

Ferris says “The Star Spangled Banner” won on its merits musically and culturally. “It pretty much wins because it’s a better song,” he said.

It was also the people’s choice, and since there is no particular ethnic, religious or regional identity espoused within the anthem, it did not exclude anyone who wanted to bind themselves to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

“He (Francis Scott Key) paid tribute to that flag, and anyone who reveres that flag could be a good American,” Ferris said.

The author does allow that the song is not perfect.

“It is kind of stilted poetry,” he said, but pointed out the song is endlessly adaptable. There were Ragtime versions in the 1890s, swing band versions in the 1930s and, famously for baby boomers, an electric rock version in the 1960s by Jimi Hendrix.

“It’s very adaptable. There were these idiosyncratic versions, and it has breathed new life into the song,” said Ferris, who was raised in Scarsdale, New York, and is unrelated to a Greenwich founding family of the same name. “I wish I were,” he jokes.

Picking up a guitar, Ferris romps through his own countrified version of the anthem, the kind of twangy sound made by a musician who has played under the stage name “Hank Cash” and appeared regularly at gigs in Bridgeport.

A fellow musician, John Giriat, has special praise for Ferris’ chops on the guitar and his musical take on the classic 1814 song.

“There were all these versions of the anthem through the years. It’s fitting he does a bluegrass version of it. He has a lot of fun playing the music,” Giriat said.

Ferris said his research, originally pursued as a graduate student in history, has left him with a renewed appreciation for the American story. “I’m a patriotic citizen,” he said. “I’m so grateful I was born here.”

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