By Robert Burke Warren
listener essay for WAMC (local NPR station)
hear me read it by clicking HERE
Since Barack Obama won the presidency, my son has been singing “The Star Spangled Banner” quite a lot. He keeps trying valiantly to master the octave-and-a-half melody. It’s a tall order, but he soldiers on, loving the work. And I’m pretty sure I know where he got hooked on the national anthem: YouTube.
When we saw the cell phone movies of spontaneously assembled crowds in urban areas all over the country sharing their joy and singing “The Star Spangled Banner” I finally lost it. Perhaps because of our rural locale, the immensity of the election results had not yet hit me full force until I witnessed those grainy, distorted little missives from cyberspace. My son was riveted. Like me, he’d never seen anything like it.
“The Star Spangled Banner.” Not “God Bless America”, “My Country ‘tis of Thee”, or “America the Beautiful - ” “The Star Spangled Banner.” In Times Square, on St. Mark’s Place, in front of the White House in Washington D.C., they threw their heads back and roared “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Why that song? It’s really hard to sing - probably the most difficult melody of any American patriotic song. By modern standards, the words are obtuse. “The Star Spangled Banner” is not about love of the physical attributes of our country, and it’s not specifically about freedom or democracy. Rather, it’s an ode to a flag that has stood through a battle.
A little history on which my son helped me: During the War Of 1812, Francis Scott Key, District Attorney of Washington D.C., spent a long rainy night witnessing the fiery Battle of Baltimore as a captive on the H.M.S. Tonnant. At dawn, Key looked to the shore and saw a flag with fifteen stripes and fifteen stars waving in a smoky haze: Against the mighty onslaught of the Royal Navy, his fellow Americans had held their ground. Key, an amateur poet as well as a politician, took out a pencil and paper and made history.
It started as a poem, but Key’s brother-in-law got the idea to put the words to the existing melody of a popular drinking song. Thus was born “The Star Spangled Banner.” Within a century, Woodrow Wilson decreed that it would be played at national events, and eventually Herbert Hoover made it our official anthem.
So this odd, compelling mix of a jubilant poem borne in captivity married to a drinking song has persisted in our collective soul, and it welled up into mass consciousness on election night 2008. At first glance “The Star Spangled Banner” may seem an unlikely choice; in addition to the operatic tune, most folks do not know what the lyrics are describing, and interestingly, the song begins and ends with an unanswered question, making it feel more open-ended than most anthems.
But perhaps these inelegant qualities – the hard-to-parse text, the difficulty in navigating the melody, the lingering questions - are part of the attraction; at their best, Americans are curious, drawn to challenges. To those who can grasp it, the inherent awkwardness of our political system is a point of pride. And like most drinking song melodies, “The Star Spangled Banner” sounds tailor-made for an exuberant crowd.
When people sang “The Star Spangled Banner” in the post-election euphoria, there may have been no flags to salute, but the overwhelming mood must have been similar to what Francis Scott Key felt that morning on Chesapeake Bay: against great odds and much fierce opposition, a battle was won, hope had survived, and even amid unanswered questions, work could begin anew on a different version of this organic experiment that is America. So whether or not they knew it consciously, those election night revelers picked the perfect song. And so has my son.