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National Anthem Is 200 Years Old: Sing The Song as It Was Written!

Star-Spangled Banner canstockphoto1610718

This year marks the 200 th anniversary of the momentous occasion when Francis Scott Key wrote the poem entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry” that would eventually be put to music and become the fledgling United States of America’s National Anthem, better known as the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

I have often waxed philosophically in this blog about how important music is to us all; how a song from years ago continues to delve up memories each time we hear it.  The Star-Spangled Banner should stir these guttural and involuntary memories for all Americans because it was forged, literally, in the blood and bravery of our ancestors.

However, I fear that these synaptic memory cues simply do not exist for far too many Americans because they don’t know the origin of the song. As a result, they don’t recognize the very real and historic importance of the red, white and blue “star-spangled banner” that we know as the American flag, or of the song that goes with it.

Over the years I have heard the National Anthem sung in such ways as to make it virtually indistinguishable from the original song.  As an amateur musician I fully appreciate stylizing music to individual taste and singing ability; but there are some songs so sacrosanct that it should never stray too far from the original. If you can’t sing the song the way it was written, then leave it to someone who can.

A society who fails to learn and heed the lessons of their history are doomed to repeat it, so I’d like to briefly describe the circumstances surrounding the birth of the anthem and hope it goes viral.  I don’t consider myself a historian, but I try to learn and understand history, so I will try to summarize what was a difficult and confusing time in U.S. history.

The Star-Spangled Banner was written during the 32-month military conflict between the United States and Britain known as the War of 1812, aka the Second Revolutionary War.  The war’s outcome essentially resolved many of the issues left over from the original war of independence the upstart U.S. waged in 1775 against its colonial ruler Great Britain.

In September 1814, 35-year old lawyer and amateur American poet Francis Scott Key was on board the British ship HMS Minden, where he was being held captive. He had come under a flag of truce with John Stuart Skinner on a mission, a proposed prisoner exchange, directed by U.S. President James Madison.

One of the prisoners was Key’s friend Dr. William Beanes, who had been accused of aiding in the arrest of British soldiers. Beanes was elderly and was a popular town physician from Upper Marlboro, Md.

Key and Skinner initially went aboard the HMS Tonnant on September 7, 1814 to speak with British officers about the prisoner exchange.  However, in the course of their discussions, they also overheard British plans to attack Baltimore and bombard the U.S. Ft. McHenry, which guarded the channel entering the Baltimore Harbor.

Consequently, they were held captive and eventually transferred to the HMS Minden, where they helplessly watched the bombardment of Ft. McHenry.

Ft. McHenry was built with the walls in a five-point star design between 1799 and 1802 to protect Baltimore.  It actually continued that role through WWII and today is a national historic landmark.

But it is best remembered as the motivation for Key’s poem. Inside the fort were about 1,000 U.S. soldiers prepared to defend the fort to the death. A powerful British fleet about 20 ships with 5,000 troops on board began bombarding the ramparts of Ft. McHenry on September 13 with the highest-tech rockets and mortars of the day.  An estimate nearly 2,000 shells were launched at the fort in the next 27 hours.

At the beginning of the siege, Key saw that the American defenders raised their small 5-feet wide by 10-feet long storm flag but he lost sight of it during the night darkness amid the din of battle.

During the night, the defenders had replaced the storm flag with the largest battle flag ever made at that time.  U.S. Major George Armistead, commander of troops at Ft. McHenry, expressed a desire for a flag so large the British would have no trouble seeing it.

What resulted was a 15-star, 15-stripe (13 original colonies plus Vermont and Kentucky) flag hand-stitched by Baltimore flag maker Mary Pickersgill, her daughter, two nieces and two American ladies of African descent.  It was 30-feet wide by 42-feet long, a behemoth of a flag.  Each stripe was two-feet wide and each star was two-feet in diameter.

The British intended to bombard the fort into submission and proceed into the harbor but the fort’s defenders had wisely augmented the harbor’s defense by sinking American merchant ships in the entrance to the Baltimore Harbor to prevent British ships from passing.

However, the American defenses were much stronger than the British had anticipated and they were forced to withdraw and set sail for New Orleans.

But as dawn broke on September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key was watching to see if the flag still flew.  When he saw not the smaller storm flag but the magnificent garrison flag, tattered but still standing, he was inspired to jot down verses of a poem on the back of a letter he was carrying.  There were actually four verses to the poem, but only the first verse would be singled out as the National Anthem and put to the music of what was reportedly an old British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Other accounts say the tune was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18 th -century gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians.

Either way, the tune and verse was eventually adopted as the National Anthem by President Herbert Hoover on March 3, 1931.

The most stirring rendition of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard was during an elementary school program for Veteran's Day when veterans stood amongst hundreds of elementary children and sang the song, the way it was written.

To hear the grizzled and sometimes off-key voices of the veterans blended with the clear, bright and sometimes off-key voices of the children was awe-inspiring.  I tear up just thinking about it.

I encourage all parks and rec programmers to try and develop programs this year that will help educate children and adults about the origin and heritage that is embodied in the National Anthem.  It really is a song of us – or U.S. if you want to get cute about it.

I believe that when Americans hear and understand how the poem-turned-song was conceived, it will re-kindle an appreciation for who we are as Americans and what we have managed to build since its writing.

But please, please, I beseech you; I implore you, please ensure the song is sung as it was written.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.

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