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Friday, July 31, 2009


As I said yesterday, I’ve always loved our National Anthem, even though it’s words are difficult to sing and its tune borderline impossible. Nothing, and I mean nothing, irritates me so much as to hear someone sing the National Anthem and botch it, add notes to it or sing it like a funeral dirge. After hearing it sung or played correctly, however, the Anthem rolls over and over in my mind for hours, as I mentally play the melodies and harmonies that make up this wonderful song. But our tour of Fort McHenry reminded me of how little the vast majority of Americans know about their National Anthem or its origins.

My knowledge of the “National Anthem of the United States of America” came about quite by accident. It began when I was in the second or third grade of elementary school and had asked my Dad one night where Donzerly was. My Dad, who had emigrated from England and become a naturalized U.S. citizen, asked me what the bloody hell I was talking about. I said something to the effect of, “You know, that town they sing about in the National Anthem. The one with the lights.” I remember a lot of laughing, followed by my mother, who’s parents spoke more German than English, getting out the old Encyclopedia Britannica and together, we learned about the National Anthem, it’s author and the circumstances under which it was written. It is this story that I’d like to share with you and I hope you’ll take a moment to read it.

In 1812, the United States went to war with Great Britain, primarily over 'freedom of the high seas.' We were in the right and for two years, held off the British, even though we were still a rather weak country. At the time, Great Britain was in a life and death struggle with Napoleon. In fact, just as the United States declared war, Napoleon marched off to invade Russia. If he won, as everyone expected, he would control Europe, and Great Britain would be isolated. It was no time for her to be involved in an American war.

At first, our seamen proved better than the British. After we won a battle on Lake Erie in 1813, the American commander, Oliver Hazard Perry, sent the message, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” However, the weight of the British navy eventually beat down our ships. New England, hard-hit by a tightening blockade, threatened secession.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was beaten in Russia and in 1814 was forced to abdicate. Great Britain now turned its attention to the United States, launching a 'three-pronged' attack. The northern prong was to come down Lake Champlain, toward New York, and seize parts of New England. The southern prong was to go up the Mississippi, take New Orleans and paralyze the west. The central prong was to head for the Mid-Atlantic States and then attack Baltimore, the greatest port south of New York. If Baltimore was taken, the nation, which still hugged the Atlantic coast, would be split in two. The fate of the United States, then, rested to a large extent on the success or failure of the central prong.

The British reached the American coast, and on August 24, 1814, took Washington, D.C. Then they moved up the Chesapeake Bay toward Baltimore. On September 12, they arrived and found 1000 men in Fort McHenry, whose guns controlled the harbor. If the British wished to take Baltimore, they would have to take the fort. On one of the British ships was an aged physician, William Beanes, who had been arrested in Maryland and brought along as a prisoner. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and friend of the physician, had come to the ship to 'negotiate' his release. The British captain was willing, but the two Americans would have to wait. It was now the night of September 13, and the 'bombardment' of Fort McHenry was about to start.

As twilight deepened, Key and Beanes saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. Through the night, they heard bombs bursting and saw the red glare of rockets. They knew the fort was resisting, and the American flag was still flying. But toward morning the bombardment ceased, and a dread silence fell. Either Fort McHenry had surrendered and the British flag flew above it, or the bombardment had failed and the American flag still flew.

As dawn began to brighten the eastern sky, Key and Beanes stared out at the fort, trying to see which flag flew over it. He and the physician must have asked each other over and over, “Can you see the flag?” After it was all finished, Key wrote a four-verse poem telling the events of the night. Called “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” It was published in newspapers and swept the nation. Somewhere along the line, someone noted that the words almost perfectly fit an old English tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” — a difficult melody with an uncomfortably large vocal range. For obvious reasons, Key's work became known as “The Star Spangled Banner”, and in 1931 Congress declared it the 'official anthem' of the United States.

Now that you know the story, here are the words, which should be sung with gusto. Presumably, the old doctor is speaking. This is what he asks Key:

Oh! Say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through' the night that our flag was still there.
Oh! Say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

(“Ramparts,” in case you don't know, are the protective walls or other elevations that surround a fort.)

The first verse asks a question. The second gives an answer:

On the shore, dimly seen through the mist of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream
'Tis the Star-Spangled Banner. Oh! Long may it wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

(“The towering steep” is again, the ramparts.) The bombardment has failed, and the British can do nothing more but sail away, their mission a failure.

In the third verse, Key allows himself to gloat over the American triumph. In the aftermath of the bombardment, Key probably was in no mood to act otherwise. Since the time of The War of 1812, however, the British have become our staunchest allies, so the third verse is rarely sung. However, I know it, so here it is:

And where is that band who so dauntingly 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 footstep's 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.

The fourth verse, a pious hope for the future, should be sung more slowly than the other three and with deep feeling:

Oh! Thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand,
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation,
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n - rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,
And this be our motto: —”In God is our trust.”
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph doth wave
O 'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Notice that our National Motto, the one that appears on all of our money and Federal Buildings, “In God We Trust,” came from this fourth verse. I hope this helps you to look at the national anthem with new eyes and next time you have a chance, listen to it with new ears.


Sailorgurl said...

Cool post! I never knew any of this..especially that there was more than one verse!

ohioredsfan said...

I knew there was more than one verse but did not realize there were four or about the part of "In God we trust".

Interesting reading, thanks.