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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

July 23, 2019: American Anthems: “The Star-Spangled Banner”

[On July 22, 1893, Wellesley Professor Katharine Lee Bates first composed the words to what would become “America the Beautiful.” So this week I’ll AmericanStudy “America” and other national songs, leading up to a special weekend post on 21C nominees for new anthems!]
On a historical context and predecessor that adds an interesting layer to our troubling anthem.
Thanks in large part to Colin Kaepernick’s protests and their linkage of the national anthem to questions of race and equality, a good deal of recent attention has been paid to Francis Scott Key’s largely forgotten third verse for “The Star-Spangled Banner” (to be clear, only the first verse is sung at most occasions). While music historians differ on exactly what that verse’s brief and somewhat oblique reference to slavery means, it seems pretty clear to this AmericanStudier—especially when coupled with Key’s also largely forgotten status as an early 19th century slave-owner—that Key was at the very least leaving enslaved African Americans out of his mythologized celebration of “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” I’m already very much on record as not-a-fan of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and none of these close reading and historical contexts make me any more likely to belt out Key’s anthem (even if I could perform the notoriously challenging song).
Those aren’t the only contexts for Key’s song, however, and a very different one offers a distinct way to historicize and AmericanStudy the anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t the first set of lyrics that Key had set to the tune of John Stafford Smith’s popular British work “The Anacreontic Song”—nearly a decade before, Key set to the same music his song “When the Warrior Returns” (1805), a tribute to Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart, two military leaders returning to the U.S. from the 1801-1805 First Barbary War in North Africa. Originally published in the Boston newspaper the Independent Chronicle on December 30, 1805, “When the Warrior Returns” precedes the national anthem in more than just tune, especially in the line, “By the light of the Star Spangled flag of our nation” but also in the repeated closing couplet, “Mixed with the olive, the laurel shall wave/And form a bright wreath for the brows of the brave.” Clearly Key was not about a little recycling when it came to his patriotic song-composing efforts.
Remembering this prequel to “The Star-Spangled Banner” offers another and more important historical context, however. As I wrote a couple months back for my Saturday Evening Post column, the War of 1812 itself can be analyzed less as a heroic defense of America from British invasion (which had largely comprised my limited understanding of it) and more as an international conflict closely tied to U.S. territorial expansion. Engaging those sides of the War of 1812 might also help Americans add the entirely forgotten Barbary Wars to our collective memories, since those Mediterranean conflicts (and especially the 1815 Second Barbary War) hinged on many of the same international, territorial, and nautical issues and debates that helped cause the strife with England. Which is to say, “The Star-Spangled Banner” didn’t just represent an evolving, Early Republic patriotic vision of American identity—it also and not coincidentally represented an extension and deepening of U.S. presence and influence on the global stage. George Washington might have warned his countrymen in his 1797 Farewell Address of “foreign entanglements,” but our national anthem reflects just how fully entangled we would become over the next couple decades.
Next anthemic post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other national songs you’d highlight?

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