Fort McHenry hits new high note

Unsung in national anthem, landmark gets its own tune

June 30, 2007|By Julie Turkewitz | Julie Turkewitz,Sun Reporter

For more than 30 years, none of the park rangers at the Baltimore military landmark knew there was a musical piece called the "Fort McHenry March."

Not Ranger Vince Vaise, who organizes summer events each year. Not Ranger Paul Plamann, who had been working at Fort McHenry for 40 years. Not a single one of the 75 employees who have passed through the 18th-century fort during the past three decades had heard of the composition.

Then Vaise heard about a lady named Betty G. Hocker, a retired opera singer who lived in a Timonium retirement community. Around the time of the nation's bicentennial, she'd written a piece called the "Fort McHenry March," full of clashing cymbals, dramatic brass and a few bars out of the "Star-Spangled Banner."

A march that had never been played at Fort McHenry. Vaise had to have it.

Tonight, the march will be performed at its namesake for the first time. The United States Air Force Honor Guard Drill Team, the Chesapeake Concert Band and three different fife and drum groups will be jointly performing as part of a military ceremony.

Hocker will not be able to attend the performance for health reasons. But for Hocker, a 96-year-old woman with white hair, tiny eyelashes and pink coral lipstick, the performance will be a recognition of a life's worth of dedication to music in Baltimore.

"I think it's gonna be a big do," she said yesterday, sitting on her pink couch by her piano at Mercy Ridge retirement community, surrounded by her photographs.

Fort McHenry, a national monument and historic shrine, is accustomed to being celebrated in music.

Built in the late 18th century to protect the city from an attack, the fort is best-known for providing the inspiration for Francis Scott Key's "Star-Spangled Banner."

Key wrote the words in September 1814 while aboard a British warship as 1,000 American troops at the fort withstood 25 hours of bombardment from the British, protecting Baltimore during the War of 1812. Vaise said he doesn't see why the fort can't have a second songwriter.

"I would say she went a little farther, because Francis Scott Key just wrote the words, and she wrote a whole march," he said.

Hocker grew up in Butler, Pa., where her family was something of a pre-Partridge family singing sensation. Dad played cello and violin, Mom played the piano. All seven kids - four girls and three boys - sang. Dad did weddings, talent shows, funerals and parties. He was the only music around, she said.

After she got married and moved to Baltimore, she started performing with the Baltimore Civic Opera, a more amateur version of today's Baltimore Opera. Director Eugene Martinet sent her on stage as Juliet without ever rehearsing with the full set, she said.

"Oh, I managed all right," she recalled.

She spent Christmases with Baltimore's most famous opera singer, Rosa Ponselle. She wrote her own music, which was played in churches across Baltimore, and when she heard that her blue-eyed idol Frank Sinatra was in town, she insisted that a friend introduce her. "I said, `Darn, I want to meet Sinatra tonight!'" she said.

She said she met him at a social gathering.

"Next to my religion, I think [music] was the greatest thing I could have had in my life," said Hocker, a widow with three children and a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. "I just love music."

Hocker wrote the "Fort McHenry March" in the 1970s while she was reading a book about the Battle of Baltimore.

"If it hadn't been for Fort McHenry, we'd all be Englishmen," she said of the fort, which was used as a military prison during the Civil War and housed a massive hospital during World War I. It is now run by the National Park Service.

She asked her friend Leigh Martinet, then the conductor of the Baltimore Municipal Band and the son of the opera director, to orchestrate the march so his band could play it.

On July 12, 1973, the sounds of drums, clarinets and cymbals playing the "Fort McHenry March" ricocheted through Memorial Stadium, just after a sing-along of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

The march, more than three minutes long, sounded like something written for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

Hocker was in the audience, and band members were wearing their signature bow ties, recalled Martinet, 83, also of Timonium. He still has the original recording of that show in his basement, surrounded by his old record players.

The march became a regular part of their lineup. But it never made it to Fort McHenry.

It will make it there today, thanks to the orchestra conductor for the Chesapeake Concert Band, Matt Elky. He met Hocker three years ago when his band, a group of volunteer musicians, was playing at Mercy Ridge.

"She ran upstairs to her room and got the march," he said. "It was in this big manila envelope, and we duplicated it and we liked what we heard, and I said `Sure, we'll play this for you next time we come.'"

It was Elky who told Vaise and the other rangers at Fort McHenry about Hocker's march.

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