In 1814, Francis Scott Key's "Defence of Fort McHenry," a paean to American heroes during the Battle of Baltimore, appeared in at least 37 newspapers. No other song of the era became popular so quickly. Frequently referred to as "our national anthem" by the 1830s, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was officially granted that status in a bill signed by President Herbert Hoover in 1931.
In "O Say Can You Hear," Mark Clague, a professor of musicology and American culture at the University of Michigan, provides a fascinating history of the national anthem. His wide-ranging account examines the origins of the medley (composed by an Englishman!) and Key's lyrics; Key's complicated views of slavery, voluntary emancipation, racial discrimination and abolitionism; iconic and controversial renditions by Whitney Houston, Jimi Hendrix, Jose Feliciano and Roseanne Barr; the song's multi-layered role in American sports; and ways in which the song has been used to call for unity and sacrifice, celebrate victory and demand political change.
Because it is effective in wartime, Clague claims, "The Star-Spangled Banner" has not been replaced as the national anthem, by, say, "America The Beautiful." Key's invocation of "the land of the free" took on new meaning during the Civil War. In subsequent decades, as a symbol of unity, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was often played in tandem with "Dixie" at events honoring veterans. During the Spanish American War, Americans sang "O'er the land we have freed and the people we've saved." Standing while the anthem was played became a litmus test of patriotism when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. And in 1941, Major League Baseball adopted an "every game anthem."
Black Americans, Clague points out, have often used the star-spangled ritual to stage protests. In 1856, a Black woman declared that the phrases "land of the free" and "home of the brave" should "never be pronounced by Anglo African lips, as long as a single child of God clanks a fetter upon the American soil."
And, of course, many readers of "O Say Can You Hear" will remember the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City; and National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick proclaiming, after taking a knee during the patriotic ritual: "I'm not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color."
Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team. Although Kaepernick had not broken an NFL rule, he was soon out of a job.
To this day, the national anthem has become part of a national culture war, in which protesters are dismissed as un-American and unquestioning patriotism as "a blinding tactic to protect other interests."
Clague has come to appreciate the contradictions and controversies associated with Key's song. To sing the anthem most fully, he concludes, is to "embrace a reflective and constructive patriotism" and remember history in ways that "allow the past to inform and generate new acts of courageous citizenship."
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
O Say Can You Hear?
By: Mark Clague.
Publisher: W.W. Norton. 320 pages, $28.95.