A significant anniversary for our anthem

WAY BACK WHEN

75 years ago, `The Star-Spangled Banner," born in Baltimore, officially became nation's song

Back story

March 11, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

The 75th anniversary of the signing of the bill designating "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the nation's national anthem seemed to slip by last week without much notice.

For the record, National Anthem Day commemorates the signing by President Herbert Hoover on March 3, 1931, of the bill sponsored by Maryland Democratic Sen. Millard E. Tydings and Rep. J. Charles Linthicum that made Francis Scott Key's 1814 composition the national song.

Historians claim that "The Star-Spangled Banner " found almost immediate acceptance with Army, Navy and civilian bands from the time Key wrote the lyrics Sept. 13, 1814. (The words were almost immediately set to the music of "To Anacreon in Heaven," a popular British drinking song.)

Originally titled "The Defence of Fort McHenry," by 1815 it had assumed its present name but had not attained official anthem status.

Its popularity soared during the Civil War, and the song was officially adopted by the Navy in 1889. In 1916, it gained further status when President Woodrow Wilson ordered it played at all military and official occasions.

However, the move to make it the national anthem was dogged by those who thought its theme was too warlike and that its tune was too difficult to sing -- an accusation that lingers to this day.

Suggested anthems included "My Country `Tis of Thee (America)" and "America the Beautiful."

But "The Star-Spangled Banner" had a forceful Baltimore advocate in the irrepressible persona of Ella Virginia Houck Holloway -- better known as Mrs. Reuben Ross Holloway to newspaper reporters and editorial writers.

Holloway, a figure from the early 20th century, never appeared in public without her trademark millinery, a tall shako cylindrical beaver hat with plume, that seemingly rose at least a foot above her head.

"Some persons said she loved it because it resembled the Shot Tower, next to where she was born," The Sun once observed.

Using her considerable charms that were fueled by her patriotism and having served as chairman of the Committee on the Correct Use of the Flag of the United States Daughters of the War of 1812, Holloway persuaded Linthicum, a veteran legislator, to introduce a bill in Congress in 1918 making "The Star-Spangled Banner" the nation's official national anthem .

While Linthicum expected quick approval of the bill, it remained tied up in committee for years, and it was only in the fading twilight of the 71st Congress that it passed and finally landed on Hoover's desk.

However, between 1918 and 1931, plenty of opposition to "The Star-Spangled Banner" also continued to surface.

In 1930, the Music Supervisors National Conference, who were meeting in Chicago, adopted a resolution against the bill.

"The supervisors further asserted that the song was the outgrowth of a single historical event and was too difficult a musical composition to be rendered properly by school children, informal gatherings and public meetings where the singing of the national anthem was appropriate," reported The New York Times.

Their choice was "America the Beautiful," with music written by Samuel A. Ward and lyrics by Katherine Lee Bates in the early 1900s.

In Baltimore, Holloway kept the pressure on with her pronouncements on how the flag should be addressed, and suggested that all adults and children begin the day by saluting the flag.

"I believe it would be a patriotic thing if parents each morning gathered their children around them and, after saying grace, if they do, to salute the flag before breakfast. The flag could be hung in the dining room or parlor," she told The Sun in 1932.

Holloway was also known for bolting to her feet the moment she heard the first notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" being played.

When a wag asked what she would do if she were taking a bath and heard the song, she curtly replied, "Young man, I stand when I hear `The Star-Spangled Banner.'"

In 1930, Linthicum's bill was passed unanimously by the House, and the Senate did the same on March 3, 1931.

The Evening Sun editorialized the next day that it "must be pleasing to all Marylanders to have a Maryland song thus honored, and yet the occasion is not quite one of unreserved joy."

The editorial stated that "The Star-Spangled Banner" had long been the country's unofficial anthem, "so nothing much is added to its dignity by this act."

What it did suggest was someone coming along in a few months with a "proposal to inflict pains and penalties upon those who do not accord the song what the proposer regards as a proper measure of respect."

Before her death in 1940, Holloway was relieved to know that the suggestion to make Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which had been introduced on radio in 1938 by Kate Smith, "The Songbird of the South," the national anthem, had failed.

"But [Holloway] merited all the attention she received. Her one concern was respect for the national flag, and she pursued that aim with a singleness of purpose which at first amused and then irritated the community. But because she persisted, the irritation passed," said a Sun editorial at Holloway's death.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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