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In Case You Didn't Know
June 11, 2018
Yeah About That:
In Case You Didn’t Know
“And I’m betting no one outside History Trivia experts knows,” Notta declared.
We’d been talking about national anthems in both recollection of the recent royal wedding and in anticipation of the FIFA World Cup games. Most of my students knew the anthem of the U.K has the same melody as “My Country ‘tis of Thee” (we stole the tune, I reminded them), the hockey buff knew the name of the Canadian National Anthem (“Oh, Canada”) and two could hum the beginning of the “La Marseillaise.”
“So where did the U.S. anthem come from?” I had asked.
“Some dude was watching the British bombard a fort or something,” one young man offered. “He saw a bunch of bombs going off and the American flag staying up all through it; and he was like, ‘I need to write a poem about this.’”
“So who wrote the music?” I asked.
My students looked at each other in some confusion. It was something they apparently had never thought about. One well-read young lady suggested, “We probably stole that from a British song, too.”
“Sort of,“ I said. “An Englishman named John Stafford Smith composed music for what might have been a drinking song called ‘The Ancreontic Song’ and Francis Scott Key borrowed it for a couple of his poems. It was Key’s ‘Defense of Fort McHenry’ that was paired with Smith’s melody.”
“And we’ve been singing it at sports games ever since that war,” the young lady proclaimed.
“Not quite,” I said. “Key wrote his poem in 1814. It was sung at Fort Sumter after the Civil War in 1865. The Navy recognized ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ in 1889, but it wasn’t proclaimed our national anthem until 1931. Not really that long, in the Big Picture.”
“Let me get this straight,” said another young man, a born skeptic if ever there was one. “All this crap about kneeling or standing and patriotism is over a booze tune from England?”
“In a way,” Notta said, “but ‘all this crap’ is more about justice for people of color, racial prejudice, and free speech versus bigotry and blind ignorance.”
That set the whole class off.
“Yeah, and most of those flag-wrappers can’t sing!”
“Well, that high note’s a killer.”
“And the words are so old!”
“Most of those old farts don’t even know all the words!”
I patted the air next in an appeal for calm. “Do you know all the words?”
There was a general consensus that the whole class did. Three of them did a reasonable job of singing what they knew to somewhat amused applause.
I nodded. “Please, continue. Second and third verse, please. And the fourth, if you know it.” Blank stares all around.
Notta piped up her observation that the trivia experts might know. Or they might not.
“Do you know them all?” the skeptic challenged me.
“Not by heart,” I admitted, “but I do have a copy. One of these days, when I’m retired, I might have a go at memorizing it.”
I shrugged. “Why not? Maybe I like to differ from the Washingtonians and actually know what I’m talking or singing about.”
“Now that would be a nice change,” Notta added.
For the record:
Complete version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" showing spelling and punctuation from Francis Scott Key's manuscript in the Maryland Historical Society collection.
O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watch'd were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare,
the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
'Tis the star-spangled banner - O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov'd home and the war's desolation!
Blest with vict'ry and peace may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when 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.*
*Key, Francis Scott. “Defense of Fort McHenry” aka “The Start Spangled Banner.” Found on June 10, 2018 at https://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/pdf/ssb_lyrics.pdf