On September 14th of this year, our national anthem will have its bicentennial celebration of when Francis Scott Key first wrote the words. Janine Stange will complete a 50-state singing tour of it by performing this challenging melody at Fort McHenry on our national anthem’s 200th anniversary. So, before we get into the history of our beloved anthem that the late Caldwell Titcomb, president of the Boston Theater Critics Association and professor emeritus of theater criticism at Brandeis, noted that it has a melody that far exceeds the range of the average person (ever try to sing it on key?), let’s have a little trivia fun. If you go to a pub quiz on September 14th, it just might help.
1. Where is Fort McHenry?
2. How many Americans died in the attack on the fort?
3. During what war was the song written.
4. What was the original title?
5. Where was Francis Scott Key when he wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner”?
6. Why was he there?
7. How many stars and stripes were on the flag Key saw flying over the fort?
8. Who wrote the melody?
9. Who did he write the melody for?
10. What is the vocal range required to correctly sing the melody?
11. How many verses are there?
12. Who was the first President who had it played for official events?
13. What President signed it into being the national anthem?
14. What was the first year it was played at baseball’s World Series?
15. Who broke all traditions to sing it on September 13, 2001?
If you found this difficult, don’t feel badly. It was meant to be. You will find all the answers in this posting. The War of 1812 was, like so many other wars we fought, not universally popular. In Europe, England and Napoleonic France had been engaged in battle for many years. While Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party (later the Democratic Party) sympathized with once-republican France, the Federalist Party leaned toward trading-partner Britain and many of its followers even continued trading with them during the war. The main American grievances were that the British would stop American merchant ships and seize any sailor they thought subject to British impressment (which they applied rather liberally) and that the British actively encouraged Native Americans to attack American settlers. American expansionist ambitions played a part, too. Although many New England maritime states were against it, the War Hawks (a term first used in that war) prevailed and a declaration of war squeaked by on June 18, 1812. To say that American victories were spotty would be an understatement. The invasion of Canada was a fiasco. While the army did capture, sack and burn the capital, York (now Toronto), it retreated with heavy losses. In retaliation, the British sacked and burned Washington, including the White House, after scattering the poorly led and organized American defense. Tit for tat. Along the way, they brought back loot and prisoners.
This is not to say that America had no victories. In the sea, our ships did surprisingly well against the world’s naval super-power. More heavily armed and built of stout American oak, our frigates proved a match for the British ones. The USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” defeated and captured four British frigates. American privateers (legalized pirates) effectively harassed British shipping. Many sailed from Baltimore Harbor.
Having defeated Napoleon, the British felt they could make short work of the upstart Americans. If they took Baltimore, they could not only almost eliminate the privateer threat, but cut their former colonies in half and defeat them in detail, or in smaller units rather than all at once. And that was the plan. However, the Americans put up a lively land defense, so the British decided to attack by sea, taking Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. With warships that could sit out of range of the fort’s guns, they thought they could pound it into submission. And now we come to “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Francis Scott Key was a lawyer and amateur poet who had gone to the British to obtain the release of Dr. Beanes, a friend of his who had been taken captive when the British had sacked Washington. It was a classic case of the worst and best of timing. While on a British warship, he observed the shelling of Fort McHenry. One can only imagine how he felt as he observed the wildly-inaccurate Congreve rockets (with a red flare) and mortar rounds (bombs bursting) exploding in the night sky, lighting the defiant battle flag over the fort. Four Americans died from the shelling. Then came the dawn. Major George Armistead ordered the 30′ by 42′ fifteen stars and stripes flag (Vermont and Kentucky had joined the Union) be hoisted and Key saw it. He penned his poem, “Defence of M’Henry,” on the back of an envelope (no, Lincoln did not write the Gettysburg Address on one).
Not long afterwards, Key changed the name to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and put it to music. The melody he chose was one he’d used before, “The Anacreontic Song.” Composed by John Stafford Smith for the London Anacreontic Society (Anacreon was a classic Greek poet who loved wine and women), it had become a popular bar song with many different words. Key liked the tune and it became our national anthem.
Although it was widely sung, “The Star-Spangled Banner” took many years to become our national anthem. “Hail Columbia” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” were strong competitors, but sharing the same melody with “God Save the King (or Queen)” knocked “My Country ‘Tis of Thee ” out of the competition. President Woodrow Wilson began to have it played at his public appearances in 1916. In 1918, baseball’s World Series played it before every game. Still, it wasn’t our national anthem. On November 3, 1929, “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” stated “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem.” Finally, on March 3, 1931, President Hoover signed the law making “The Star-Spangled Banner” our national anthem.
Many singers decry the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Since it has a melody that spans nearly two octaves, when most people are good for one, at best, it is daunting to sing. Not only that, few people know the first verse perfectly, much less all four. Consider Christina Aguilera’s performance at Super Bowl XLV. Yet, many famous singers have sung it without complaint. One of the most unusual ones did so at St. Paul’s Cathedral on September 13, 2001. Queen Elizabeth II sang it with all those attending the 9/11memorial service there, the first British monarch ever to do so. At least in public.