'Banner' a hit song with staying power

National anthem proves dynamic, enduring

  • John Philip Sousa, Jimi Hendrix and Beyonce all rendered the National Anthem in memorable ways.
John Philip Sousa, Jimi Hendrix and Beyonce all rendered the… (David Cowles, For The Baltimore…)
September 08, 2014|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

The sight that stirred Francis Scott Key on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, from the deck of a ship on the Patapsco River, not only gave proof of the country's ability to survive a war with Britain. It also generated the verses that, set to a song of British origins, would one day be proudly hailed as our national anthem.

With its octave-and-a-fifth stretch, the melody can be considered vocally perilous, but that hasn't stopped people from singing, or ungallantly screaming, "The Star-Spangled Banner" over the centuries.

The piece got a good deal of its identity through the crisp and clear military band arrangement crafted by John Philip Sousa in 1879 and widely played, but the startling guitar version played by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969 ended up being nearly as iconic.

And many a starry singer, such as pop music's Whitney Houston and Beyonce and opera's Renee Fleming, has continued to spin the piece distinctively on national occasions.

"The anthem became inscribed in an almost genetic way as part of our DNA makeup," says Mark Clague, associate professor of music, American culture and African-American studies at the University of Michigan.

The bicentennial of the bombardment of Fort McHenry that Key witnessed provides a welcome opportunity to take a fresh look at the anthem and its legacy.

Several events in Baltimore during the days and weeks ahead will do just that, including performances that trace the musical origin of the anthem and early performance practice. A long-neglected orchestral fantasy on the anthem will be revived, and a mixed-media presentation will offer alternative approaches to the music.

This sort of thing is just what Clague hoped for when he helped to launch the Star Spangled Music Foundation two years ago to encourage greater appreciation of the national anthem and other American patriotic music.

"The anthem opens a window to look at American history," Clague says.

That history starts with the Anacreontic Society in London, a men's club of amateur musicians. Among the songs they liked to sing was one from the late 1770s with words by one of the society's presidents, Ralph Tomlinson, and music by member John Stafford Smith: "To Anacreon in Heaven."

A popular view of that song, which became the society's anthem and contains references to various Greek gods, is one of the myths Clague has been busy debunking.

"It's not so much a drinking song, although people keep calling it that," he says. "It speaks a lot to the spirit of the club, which celebrated Greek culture. The society members wanted to have a good time, and certainly alcohol was a part of that, but the song was not sung in every pub."

Cellist Allen Whear, artistic director of Pro Musica Rara, which has programmed the Anacreontic Society's anthem next month, takes a similar view of the piece.

"It's got this bad reputation of a drinking song," he says, "but it's really a fine, fun song celebrating Bacchus and Venus. What's wrong with that?"

Viewing "To Anacreon in Heaven" in a more respectful light is just the beginning of understanding how it figures into American musical heritage. The song made it across the Atlantic in time for our Revolution and had no trouble entering the hit parade.

"It was one of 100 or so melodies that every American would have known in 1814," Clague says, "and it was used with 85 different lyrics before 1820. So it was really an American tune for Francis Scott Key."

So American, in fact, that Key had already written words for it well before the Battle of Baltimore. That was in 1805, and the song was "When the Warrior Returns," which Key himself sang at a party in Washington to celebrate Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart, naval heroes of the First Barbary War.

There's a reference in that song to "the Star-Spangled flag of our nation," and the last line rhymes "wave" and "brave." No wonder Key could quickly dash off new verses by the time he found himself within earshot of all those bombs bursting in air nine years later.

"It is irrefutable that Key had that tune in mind," Clague says. "A lot of people claimed later that they fit the tune and text together. That's one of the basic myths we are trying to correct."

Early-music specialist David Hildebrand, director of the Severna park-based Colonial Music Institute and creator of 1812music.org, likewise is busy setting the record straight about Key and the anthem.

"It is important to dispel myths and legends," Hildebrand says. "One of them is that Francis Scott Key was tone deaf. He was not. Another is that he was a prisoner aboard a British ship, writing a poem on the back of an envelope. He was on an American ship [a flag-of-truce vessel detained by the British], writing lyrics. Notice I use the word 'lyrics.' What he wrote was very much not a poem."

Those lyrics have a clear purpose.

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