Embracing Key's anthem

Thomas V. DiBacco

November 09, 1990|By Thomas V. DiBacco

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand

Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!

Blest with victory and peace may the heaven-rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!

Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just.

And this be our motto, 'In God is our trust.'

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

VETERANS DAY, which the nation celebrates Monday, is not only an opportune time to ponder the holiday's origin -- as Armistice Day in World War I -- but also to reflect on "The Star-Spangled Banner," the national anthem that became so much a part of that era. To be sure, Francis Scott Key's stanzas made up America's anthem before April 1917, when the nation's war resolution was passed, but there had been little occasion for most Americans to learn and sing the song.

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.

Not surprisingly in this divisive war -- controversial because 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.

Like today, some Americans were not happy with the song's musicality, and even the five stanzas fell under critical scrutiny. But on Sept. 14, 1918 -- the 104th anniversary of Key's writing of the song -- National Anthem Day helped to ensure that Americans would know that what made the song special was its origin during another controversial war 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 stanzas 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 Armistice Day 1918, Americans had memorized the words of the national anthem, and a chorus of voices in communities 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 "the cause of humanity, of liberty and justice."

While the song appeared to sound best subsequently during wartime and worse when American rights were secure from foreign assaults, this tendency is testimony to the fact that one blessing of freedom is the right to criticize the patriotic symbols that, in crises, receive their rightful appreciation.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University, Washington, D. C.

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