- - Thursday, September 11, 2014


No American historic document has had a more tortuous path toward national respect than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” penned by Francis Scott Key two centuries ago in the wee hours of Sept. 14.

The 35-year-old lawyer and poet was aboard a British ship, on a mission for President James Madison to negotiate exchange of prisoners, when he witnessed the British barraging Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. The Royal Navy couldn’t effect a landing, though, and eventually gave up the fight, with Key delighting in the immediate raising over the fort of a giant American flag that he described as the Star-Spangled Banner, made, appropriately, by Baltimore workers.

Key’s four-stanza poem, originally entitled “The Defence of Fort M’ Henry,” was written to the rhyme and meter of an old English song that Key had used earlier for one of his poems. It was, from a musical point of view, no toe-tapper in an era when more melodious patriotic songs abounded. Therefore, “Hail, Columbia,” used in George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, was unofficially the national anthem for most of the 19th century. “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (1831), identical in melody to the British national anthem of “God Save the Queen,” was also a competitor. Although “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung as well, especially in the immediate postwar years, the start of the Civil War led to the formation of a Committee Upon a National Hymn, which offered $500 for something better. Among the 1,200 entries, the committee could not agree on a winner.

More stirring patriotic songs emerged by the end of the 19th century, such as “America the Beautiful” (1893) and D.C. native John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1896), with lyrics written by Sousa that were drowned out and abandoned by the loud, marching tone of his composition. (In 1987, Congress made it the national march of the nation.) Then came a duo of renditions by George M. Cohan: “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1904) and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (1906).

No matter, “The Star-Spangled Banner” got a big lift from the military by the 1890s, especially as Army and Navy regulations ordered the playing of the song at all ceremonial occasions. When the music began, regulations stipulated that one “should immediately rise and remain standing until the music shall have ceased.” No military official did more to advance “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem than Col. Caleb Carton, commanding officer at the Fort Meade military post in South Dakota. Carton was successful in getting Washington officialdom to require the playing of the song not only in ceremonies, but at every evening retreat. Eventually, the military campaign was successful in moving President Woodrow Wilson, through an executive order in 1914, to designate “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Congress wouldn’t act until 1931, again, because musicians rolled their eyes over the difficulty in singing the widely variant notes of the song.

However, American entry into World War I in 1917 ensured respect for Key’s work because it was the first major foreign encounter since the War of 1812. Not only the military, but also the civilian population, eventually recognized that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” unlike any of its competitor songs, was a lyrical history of a milestone during a war that by all odds the United States should have lost. It signified standing firm by Americans under an unparalleled but unsuccessful assault by seemingly superior enemy forces. It was, in every sense of Key’s words, “a perilous fight.”

Slowly, Key’s composition was introduced at events, at first, in the seventh-inning stretch of the opening game of the 1918 World Series, then on opening days of the baseball season, on holidays and every game of the World Series. Finally, during World War II, all games, more ceremonial occasions, and more gatherings of proud citizens were punctuated by “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

More importantly, the anthem moved from a seventh-inning stretch posting to its rightful place: the beginning of the event. And to the top of American ratings: A Rasmussen poll in 2012 found that 82 percent opposed replacing it with another anthem.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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