The Star-Spangled Banner

It is commonly sung at sporting events all across the country, but it is my belief that most Americans don’t know the origins of The Star-Spangled Banner. This is somewhat of a tragedy to me, because the song itself is based in a feeling of genuine pride and joy when our country was still in it’s infancy. Perhaps we are simply too far removed from that part of our country’s history to really care… or maybe we are too distracted by our increasingly busy lives to notice what we don’t know. Either way, I think it is beneficial to take a few moments to look into the past and appreciate what our ancestors went through, because without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.

The Star-Spangled Banner was adopted as the national anthem of the United States of America by President Herbert Hoover in 1931. It was recognized for official use by the U.S. Navy in 1889 and by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. The lyrics are from a poem by Francis Scott Key, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” which was written on September 14, 1814. Francis had written the poem after seeing Fort McHenry get bombarded by British ships during the war of 1812. Seeing the large U.S. flag, with 15 stripes and 15 stars, still waving after the bombardment, inspired him to pen the poem. At the time, Francis was 35 years old and was a lawyer and amateur poet.

The poem was put to the music of an existing British song by John Stafford Smith. The Star-Spangled Banner has 4 stanzas and a range of 19 semitones, which makes it rather difficult to sing. Most of the time only the first stanza is sung. Before The Star-Spangled Banner was adopted as the official anthem of the U.S., a few other songs were commonly used at state and federal functions. These songs included “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “Hail, Columbia,” and “America the Beautiful.” 

O! 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 through 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;

O! say, does that Star-spangled Banner still* wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

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 on the stream;

‘Tis the Star-spangled Banner, O! 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.

O! thus be it ever when free men shall stand

Between their loved homes and the foe’s desolation;

Bless’d with victory and peace, may our Heaven-rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation

Then conquer we must, for 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.

I like the last stanza the best, probably because it gives credit where credit is due, to God. The song is much longer than I ever before realized, and for that reason I can understand why the entire thing isn’t typically sung. Yet, I am also sad that so much of the song, and therefore the meaning, is left out. It is a song of hope, admiration, and joy… and I am not sure the first stanza alone properly conveys these emotions.

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