F. Scott Key's September song

Anthem: "The Star-Spangled Banner" has come to stand for everything right about America.

September 30, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

WHEN tragedy and fear strike, music becomes part of the national defenses, a rallying point as palpable and comforting as the flag. Since the unspeakable events of Sept. 11, well-worn patriotic tunes, turned almost trivial by association with baseball games and pops concerts, sound fresher than ever and help to ease some of the hurt.

The United States boasts an abundant repertoire of such music, which has been heard since the terrorist attacks from the sidewalks of New York to the steps of the Capitol, from Buckingham Palace to the streets of Berlin. The national anthem and two unofficial ones - "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" - are being sung, often in spontaneous outbreaks, with a frequency and fervor surely unmatched since World War II. (Curiously, "My Country 'Tis of Thee" doesn't appear to have made as strong a showing.)

One result of this musical counterattack against terrorism may be a boost in the stock of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Suddenly, all the old complaints about it - too hard to sing, too awkward in matching words to melody, too violent in imagery - seem petty. No one is likely to worry much anymore about having to struggle to reach the high notes; no one would dream of making a Roseanne Barr mockery of the music.

FOR THE RECORD - A photograph of the original manuscript of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that appeared in Sunday's Perspective section should have been credited to the Maryland Historical Society, which owns the manuscript. The Sun regrets the error.

And it hardly matters now that our national melody really started out as an English drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven."

Congress proclaimed "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem only 70 years ago. It had been a de facto anthem for some time; it was so closely associated with the United States that Giacomo Puccini made use of it in his 1904 opera Madama Butterfly to identify the American characters. But it was a long struggle for legislative status.

Tireless Baltimore grande dame Mrs. Reuben Ross Holloway talked a local congressman into introducing the national anthem bill in 1918, and a vigorous lobbying campaign by the Veterans of Foreign Wars began in 1926.

The VFW was concerned about "pacifist propaganda" aimed at replacing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with "something more flowery and meaningless," The Sun reported at the time. Complaints about militaristic words have never really stopped; the line about "bombs bursting in air" understandably causes particular discomfort for some people today in the wake of incendiary planes.

But it's hard to imagine the national anthem ever being replaced. It's so ingrained in the public psyche, so deeply connected with devotion to country and pride in all things American. Maybe it's a case of gilt by association, but "The Star-Spangled Banner" has come to mean everything right about the United States.

When Francis Scott Key jotted down verses after witnessing the bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry by the British in 1814, he had a specific tune in mind. The Maryland Historical Society determined in its 1972 compilation of source materials related to the national anthem, Star-Spangled Books, that Key had used the same melody for patriotic stanzas he wrote nine years earlier.

Those verses described how "the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation" obscured the flag of our enemy in 1805 - Tripoli - and how "turban'd heads bow'd to the terrible glare." (Nearly two centuries later, images of a "turban'd" foe are back.)

On Sept. 5, Key sailed on a "flag-of-truce" boat from Baltimore to reach the British fleet in Chesapeake Bay and plead for freedom for an Upper Marlboro doctor being held prisoner. The release was granted, but Key was detained until after the planned attack on Baltimore.

From his vantage point, Key saw through the smoke of battle the 30-by-42-foot flag with its 15 stars and 15 stripes made the year before by Mary Young Pickersgill, her daughter and her mother. It flew above the fort throughout the assault of Sept. 13 and 14. A day or two later, Key was in a Baltimore hotel, writing his poetic take on what the sight of that defiant flag meant to him, what it should mean to the young nation.

Key's poem and the instruction that it should be sung to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven" were soon widely disseminated.

That tune had been written a few decades earlier by John Stafford Smith for members of the Anacreontic Society in London, made up of upper-class amateur musicians. It was sung, glee club-style, after dinner at biweekly meetings to get the revelry going. The original verses by Ralph Tomlinson are addressed to the spirit of the ancient Greek poet Anacreon.

The original tune sounds a little odd (performed in the key of C, no sharps or flats would occur); it became more refined when adapted for Key's words. But it took a while for the melody to settle into its now familiar groove. For many years, the first word, "O," was sung on the same note as "say." Eventually, the "O" shifted to a higher pitch and was stretched out to two descending notes.

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