Every American schoolchild knows the story.
During the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, not long after the infamous burning of Washington D.C., the Maryland attorney Francis Scott Key witnessed the British attack on Fort McHenry from his temporary captivity aboard the British fleet. The ensuing bombardment lasted late into the night, and Key was too far removed from the action to have a clear view of the victor. It wasn’t until morning that he saw the fort’s garrison flag still flying proudly above Baltimore Harbor, signaling a successful American defense. The British, having depleted their supply of ammunition, withdrew from the fight. It was a decisive American victory.
These were the events that inspired Key, who was also an amateur poet, to write the four-stanza poem “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” which he set to a popular tune of the day. The new song was published by several Baltimore-area newspapers and swiftly became a patriotic wartime hit, while also procuring its modern title “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The song’s popularity and cultural status steadily grew in the following century. It was adopted as an unofficial anthem by several branches of the military. President Woodrow Wilson furthered its prominence in 1916 by signing an executive order declaring it to be the national anthem of all armed forces. Finally, on March 3, 1931, it was officially selected as America’s national anthem by a congressional resolution, besting “Hail, Columbia,” “America the Beautiful,” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” for the position. The following day, that bill was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover, sealing its place in American culture.
In the more than eight decades since, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been played at countless ball games, political events, and, for those old enough to remember, network sign-offs. It has provided the soundtrack for many teary-eyed moments in our nation’s history, from Olympic victories to Presidential inaugurations. But does it really deserve to be our national anthem?
There are many reasons to question the logic of preserving “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem, to say nothing of why it was chosen in the first place.
For starters, despite its earnestly patriotic origins, Key’s poem leaves much to be desired, both as poetry and as a musical lyric. The frequent description of Key as an amateur poet is indeed no historical mistake. For all of its appealing American bombast, the four-stanza poem (of which only the first is sang) contains some startlingly dated prose. Take, for example, the third verse, which reads:
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 washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
There are few today who would consider such lines acceptable outside the doors of a museum or the pages of a history book, and even fewer who would condone their performance in public. Key, himself a slaveowner and staunch anti-abolitionist, has a checkered legacy in regards to race that is aptly displayed in this stanza.
In 1835, as the District Attorney of Washington D.C., Key’s aggressive prosecution of the slave Arthur Bowen, who had been accused of attempted murder after drunkenly entering his mistress Anna Bowen’s bedroom while carrying an axe, and his arrest of the leading D.C. abolitionist Reuben Crandall are widely credited as instigating factors in the Snow Riot. Key was also a co-founder of the American Colonization Society, which sent thousands of free blacks to Africa in order to establish a homeland for themselves in the modern-day nation of Liberia; this movement had less to do with the prosperity of African Americans than it did the removal an undesirable ethnic class.
In fairness, Key’s views were not too dissimilar from those of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or a great many others of the time, but unlike those figures, Key’s actions did more to preserve the racial status quo than to make any meaningful progress. So today, as we see a nationwide consideration to retire statues, flags, and other memorials commemorating slavery and famous anti-abolitionists, perhaps it’s time we gave “The Defense of Fort M’Henry” a second thought as the lyric to our National Anthem.
That leaves the matter of the music itself. Key set his poem to an already popular melody by the otherwise forgotten British organist and composer John Stafford Smith. The tune was that of “The Anacreontic Song” or, properly, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the official anthem of an eponymous 18th-century gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians. The club, like the Greek poet for whom it was named, is remembered for its drinking songs and little else.
And made for drink the song was. With its bounding melodic line and a vocal range of over an octave-and-a-half, it’s no easy number. The average range of trained vocalist, for context, is about two octaves, though it’s often much less for the untrained singer. This difficult range, combined with at times awkward intervals, has resulted in a number of famous butcherings by actors, celebrities, and even trained vocalists.
For example, in the musical phrase containing “by the dawn’s early light,” the jump from “dawn’s” to “early” is a descending minor sixth—an interval seldom heard in vocal music, and for good reason. But that hardly compares to the infamous and staggeringly difficult leap of an octave-and-a-third that separates the phrase “o’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?” from “And the rockets’ red glare.” This one interval has probably caused more public musical blunders than any piece in the history of the classical repertoire; that speaks volumes more about the quality of the composition than it does America’s musical talent.
Lets make something else very clear: there’s nothing remotely American about this music.
Lets make something else very clear: there’s nothing remotely American about this music. Not one thing. From the opening bell tones of “O, say can you see” to the aforementioned gaping melodic intervals, “The Anacreontic Song” has far more in common with, say, “Men of Harlech” than anything written in the United States—all the more’s the shame.
America’s music, like the culture itself, has been defined not just by being another offshoot of Great Britain, but by being a melting pot of diverse ideas and peoples from all over the globe. Europeans brought with them the tradition of Western classical music, while Africans, first as slaves and later as free men, brought with them the pentatonic melodies and complex rhythms of their native continent. It was the mixture of these two musical styles that birthed the new, purely American musical genres of ragtime, the blues, and jazz. These styles, combining the classical harmonies of Europe with the melodic complexities of Africa, would not have been possible had these two peoples not been so suddenly and haphazardly thrust together.
These are only the most notable examples of our melting pot at work. America’s musical voice also owes influence to, among others, the Orient, South & Central America, and the numerous Native American tribes who first called this continent home. All of their contributions to our musical culture are betrayed by an anthem that only celebrates an English heritage.
But that musical diversity has been reflected in the works of America’s best and brightest.
But that musical diversity has been reflected in the works of America’s best and brightest.
The mid-1800s saw the rise of perhaps America’s greatest songwriter Stephen Foster, who was responsible for the internationally recognized tunes “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “My Old Kentucky Home;” these are some of the first identifiably American works to enter the public consciousness. In the late 1800s, the two wholly American genres of ragtime and jazz were taking the nation by storm, largely thanks to the pioneering music of Scott Joplin and James Reese Europe, and were among the first to catch the attention and admiration of the international music community. And by the early 20th century, composers like Charles Ives, John Philip Sousa, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Duke Ellington had irrevocably solidified the United States’ reputation as not just a distinctly national musical voice, but as a leading figure in the classical music world—one that attracted the likes of Gustav Mahler, Béla Bartók, and Igor Stravinsky to our shores.
Therefor, given this voluminous and rich musical history, it seems a national embarrassment that we should continue to sing the words of a contentious anti-abolitionist set to the notes of an English pub tune.
Really, the only strong defense that can be mounted for “The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of nostalgia: nostalgia for every military event, every 4th of July celebration, and every child’s baseball game at which it has been played. It no doubt sits deep in the heart of every self-described patriot born on our soil. But this kind of ankle-deep patriotism, despite being a force to be reckoned with, has never been particularly based on reason. If it were, perhaps more would see that our national anthem betrays one of America’s biggest artistic accomplishments.
So I’ll continue to be a good sport and stand with my hand over my heart whenever it’s performed, but that won’t stop me from rolling my eyes at its ostentatious musicality, wincing with each new hapless public rendition, or from silently asking myself, “Can’t we do better than this?” Because the answer is yes, yes we can. And we should.