It is a song most of us fumble over-a challenging scale for most voice ranges. Some say it is an anthem filled with chest-beating words, arrogant, war-like. Others use the tune for social protest, raising fists, taking a knee, turning backs.
Some find unimaginable departures from the melody, riffing off stadium sound system.
It is a song I learned early on. The once-a-week music teacher insisted that the class learn the first and last verse. But that was long ago. She did beat into our minds that the word "banner" had only three notes, not BA-HA-NER-HER. But then, my once-a-week music teacher was a stickler for detail.
But we really mangle it. Half of us don't know the words, half of us can't sing it. How did we get to such a point?
Usually when our flag is displayed, we take our hats off or put hands over hearts, or salute if we are in uniform when the stars and stripes is passing by in parade, or raised to a flagpole. We know that the United States flag and the National Anthem are bound together in some way but don't think about it overmuch…except that song is so.. hard… to… sing!
The Song and the War of 1812
Over two hundred years have passed since a young lawyer and his friend climbed aboard a British ship anchored in Baltimore Harbor to negotiate the release of captured Americans. They were unable to leave the ship, being held there for the duration of the battle which was about to begin: the naval assault on Fort McHenry.
Francis Scott Key stood along the railing, watching the bombardment of the fo
rt by men who were determined to humble his fledgling country. Would this young nation be taken back into a British colony again? Questions must have swirled through his head watching the fierce bombardment.
Watching, waiting through the long night, it would seem impossible that the fort-and the men inside-could withstand such a heavy and steady assault.
Did the British crew cheer at each explosion? Did the young lawyer pace the deck as the probably fate of his country was being fought? In the darkness, it was impossible to tell if the fort still was defended. Bombardment stopped.
And then came the first rays of the new day, and as the sea breeze reached the shore, driving away the smoke from the fires still burning, Francis Scott Key saw that the "storm flag" that had been flying through the night was lowered….and the huge flag-the Star- Spangled Banner-was raised, and it billowed at the top of the fort's flagstaff. Fort McHenry held.
Immediately he began to write of his joy: Oh, Say! Can you see, by the dawn's early light?" Leaving the ship, he continued his poem of happiness on land. The poem caught the imagination of the public, who were in sore need of a morale boost.
It was noted that the words fit the cadence of a tune that was used by a social club, and both poem and tune were joined. The first public performance took place in a tavern, and it took another hundred years for the song to be officially proclaimed as our national anthem.
Then and Now
And so we have it today: an un-singable tune, with lyrics written by a man of torts and briefs, held by the enemy who planned to defeat his country. Written, not from the vantage point of the fighting men but from the anxious perspective of a helpless onlooker. And it became our National Anthem. Our history is written by just such improbable events.
Our National Anthem doesn't proclaim, so much as asks questions: the same questions Francis Scott Key asked himself, the same ones we ask ourselves today.
What do we see for our country? In the dawn's early light of each day, do we still proudly hail the flag and what it means to us? Do we still trust that it still waves even through perilous times?
Oh, say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave o'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
Yes, I think-I believe-I know--that it does, despite our differences, our politics, our arguments. The flag that flies so freely, that gives us the right to be different in so many ways, was purchased at a heavy price. The song reminds us, the blood-red stripes confirm it. The flag and the song-- intertwined in history and in our hearts. On this, another Memorial Day that we are privileged to celebrate, let's put hang our flags to honor those who followed that flag into perilous times.
And by golly, let's try to sing that un-singable song!
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