JoeMc on 07/02/2009 at 03:14PM
The Fourth of July is just around the corner, and so the time has come when we honor the birth of our country by slapping hunks of meat on grills, blowing stuff up real good, and, naturally, listening to songs about stuff getting blown up real good. I refer, of course, to our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," soon to preface many a Fourth of July ballgame and fireworks display. In the past, people have complained that this song isn't really that representative of America, that we ought to switch to something a bit sweeter, like "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America." But I think "The Star-Spangled Banner" is just about right.
People tend to forget about the "second war of American independence," the War of 1812. This was the one in which America declared war against Great Britain (again) for restricting our trade, kidnapping our sailors, and supporting Native Americans in their fight against encroaching settlers in the middle west. Once the fighting started, it didn't really take long for the American army to break up the Native American resistance and knock-off Shawnee leader Tecumseh; after a couple of years, the British gave up and decided to be friends. In those information superloway days, it took about two months for the Americans to find out that a peace treaty was signed! In the meantime, they won the battle of New Orleans, which later led to a pretty big hit song by Johnny Horton.
The much bigger hit to emerge from that war, however, was "The Star-Spangled Banner." As most schoolkids know, Francis Scott Key ("Frankie" to his pals) wrote the words on the back of an envelope during a bombardment. He was on a mission of mercy to free a popular doctor that the British had imprisoned, a man who had been kind to wounded British soldiers. The Brits had agreed to turn the doctor over, which is the kind of thing that would happen in those more gentlemanly days. Unfortunately, Key chose to make his trip right before the attack on Baltimore began, so he had to sit it out on a British ship while Fort McHenry took a drubbing. What better way to pass the time than to pen a stanza or two?
As it turned out, and as Key's poem illustrates, the fort withstood the bombardment. After the battle, once Key was back on American soil, he polished off his poem and then got the great idea of setting the words to a British drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven." The British probably would've gotten a kick out of the fact that our eventual national anthem was based on one of their own tunes––and not just any tune, but one they used as a soundtrack for knocking back their ale!
The song was instantly popular since the tune was already well-known by most Americans. It took awhile for it to become our national anthem, though. That didn't happen until 1931, when Herbert Hoover performed one of his innumerable services to his country by approving it as Our Theme Song. Ironically, this happened during Prohibition! If any Brits had been around who remembered the origins of the tune used for Key's poem, this would have been an occasion for quite a snigger.
Today's post features a version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that was recorded when the tune was still unofficial. It was recorded, significantly, a short time before American involvement in a slightly more high-profile conflict: World War I. Thomas Chalmers and Elisabeth Spencer, two popular vocalists for the Edison company, sang this version in 1915, at a time when sentiment was running high about American involvement in the new European war, pro and con. What better ditty to inspire the legions of undecided than this testament to America's strength and perseverance? As an added bonus, in this version you get to hear an extra stanza of the song, the one that goes:
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 in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Sing along at home!