Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Star-Spangled Banner: A Sensory Experience

Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star–spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Two centuries ago today, Francis Scott Key wrote the words to "The Star–Spangled Banner."

It was a poem, written as Key, a 35–year–old lawyer and poet, watched the Americans turn back the British at Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. Key wasn't primarily a writer, but he had some of the writer's soul within him. I think I know how he must have felt; I, too, have been inspired by sights or sounds or smells or tastes, and felt compelled to write.

That is a big part of what writing is about — an attempt to describe an experience, and inspiration can come in many forms. I feel inspired, for example, to write about my grandmother whenever I taste biscuits or cookies that taste like the ones she made. My mother was a big fan of Simon & Garfunkel and John Denver; when I hear a song by either, I think of her, and sometimes I am inspired to write about my memories of her. Other things remind me of people and places, too — sunsets, the sound of gentle rain falling early on a Saturday morning, the smell of burgers cooking on the grill. The smell of honeysuckle in the summer evening air always reminds me of my first serious girlfriend.

Key's senses must have been on overload 200 years ago today. He could see the smoke of battle and, as it cleared, the red, white and blue of the American flag still waving in the breeze. He could smell the smoke. He could hear the guns being fired. I'll bet he could practically taste the gunpowder.

Of course he wrote about it. He was powerless to do otherwise. He was moved by what he had witnessed that day.

Now, I know, from a lifetime of writing, that people don't always read what you write. It may be emotionally and intellectually satisfying to put your thoughts on paper, but every writer has to accept the fact that he/she will write some things — perhaps many things — that others will not read. Two centuries ago today, Key may have wondered if anyone would ever read what he wrote. It goes with the territory, but still a writer writes, anyway.

And sometimes you may write songs that people sing or books that people read and quote long after you have died. Sometimes — if you're lucky as well as good — you create something that outlives you.

In Key's case, he wrote a song that became his nation's anthem. I have known no other national anthem in my life. That said, though, there is not really a long tradition of the song as the official national anthem, certainly not the kind of history that should make folks misty upon hearing it — and yet they do. It really is a fascinating phenomenon.

You know the old story about how Key's lyrics were set to the music of a British drinking song? Well, that isn't entirely true. The music did come from Britain, but it was written for a men's social club. Characterizing the members of the club as drunks needlessly demeaned them.

Anyway, the song had four stanzas. Most Americans know at least part of the first stanza — but almost no one, drunk or sober, knows the other stanzas.

It became the national anthem in 1931.

Many folks may only know "The Star–Spangled Banner" from hearing it being played before the start of ball games and whenever Americans have won gold medals at the Olympics.

I recall once, in an episode of All in the Family, a Puerto Rican gentleman began singing the national anthem in Spanish to prove to Archie that he was a legitimate American citizen, and Archie stopped him, admonishing him that the song should only be sung the way it was written (in English) and "only on patriotic occasions — like ball games and that."

I guess there was no official national anthem prior to 1931. "Hail, Columbia" was one of several songs that were regarded as unofficial national anthems. "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" was another.

I don't think I'm especially choosy about who sings the national anthem — but I am sort of particular about how it is sung. Some singers feel compelled to jazz it up — or funk it up or whatever, to put their own personal stamp on it, depending upon what it is that performer does. That isn't necessary. If it was up to me, I would tell 'em all, Put your unique style out there on CDs or in concerts. Sing this song with the respect and reverence it deserves.

(I've always liked Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star–Spangled Banner" from Woodstock, but it isn't generally appropriate for most audiences.)

In Baltimore, some people apparently expect a "Super Bowl–esque kind of crowd" for the anthem's bicentennial today. Lots of things are planned, as USA Today reports.

But you don't have to be in Baltimore to celebrate. Do you have an American flag? Even a small one? You can stick it in a flower pot or whatever you've got.

And maybe try to learn those other three stanzas. Here they are:
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! Oh 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 washed out their foul footsteps' 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!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved 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!

Speaking of All in the Family, I remember a hilarious exchange between Mike and Archie while they were watching the national anthem being performed before a ball game.

"That is one terrible song," Mike observed.

Frankly, I thought he said it strictly to get under Archie's skin. When Archie made a predictable defense of the song, Mike complained that it glorified war and that, as a song, "it stinks. No one can remember the words."

I guess that is a matter of opinion. Personally, I have never thought the words of the national anthem were any worse than most of the words to alma maters or college fight songs I have heard, and, nevertheless, those songs evoke strong emotional responses.

Mike may have been right about performers forgetting the words. I have witnessed a couple of those. But Steve Vogel writes in the Washington Post that it is a myth that the song glorifies war.

"Actually," Vogel writes, the song "is more a hymn of thanks by the devout Key, who feared that Baltimore would be destroyed."