The Story Behind “The Star-Spangled Banner”: A Q&A With Author Marc Ferris

What is it about the lyrics and melody that give it a bad reputation, and why do performers so frequently mess it up?

It’s all Robert Goulet’s fault. Take a look in the book. He spooked professional singers, who seem to get caught up in the moment and forget what they’re doing. Singers seem to get to nervous, but I recently attended my daughter’s 8th-grade graduation and people were singing it. Did they nail it like opera stars, with beautiful clear notes? No, but what does it matter?

One of the greatest versions occurred at the Boston Garden before the first Bruins game after the Boston Marathon bombing. The singer started off, and then dropped his microphone maybe ten words in. And the whole crowd sang the song quite well. Look at that video; it will send chills up your spine. Americans want to sing it, and they can do it. I’m not a professional singer and I can sing the song. So, if you’re a professional singer – come on! And, as far as remembering the words, Shakespearean actors, or people who cover Bob Dylan songs can go on and on remembering all those lines and you can’t remember 81 words of the national anthem? I don’t understand this. It must be a mental block.

I think you’re probably right. When and why did “The Star-Spangled Banner” start being performed before baseball games and other big events?

There’s another myth that has been perpetuated over the years: that the first time it aired occurred during the 1918 World Series, partly because of Babe Ruth’s involvement. Yet, for years, baseball historians knew that it was 1862. I did a lot of research and didn’t see any citation. But after digging online, I finally found the actual citation from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle proving that date of 1862. And there are other colorful chronicles of it being played on opening day in the 1890s, and it was indeed played at the 1899 Army – Navy football game.

The 1918 World Series remained significant, but many factors kept it from becoming an everyday event, including the lack of PA systems and electronics. Bands cost a lot of money before World War II, when teams played it before every game. All teams kept playing it, except the Chicago Cubs, whose owner thought it only appropriate during wartime – they resumed playing it during the Vietnam War and have continued.

Oddly, in 1954, the first year the Baltimore Orioles took to the field, their GM tried to play the song only on holidays. He was patriotic, he was in the American Legion, but he thought playing it at every game cheapened its significance. I think that lasted a week before the people of Baltimore demanded that the team keep playing it. Also, in Baltimore, at the line that goes, “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,” the entire stadium screams out “O!” for the Orioles. And the first time I was there I couldn’t believe it and thought “How could they desecrate the anthem? This is Baltimore, the birthplace of the song.” But people asked me that when I was in Baltimore for the 200th anniversary [in September]. I said “you know what, have fun with it. It’s participatory, people are having fun, it’s not like it’s a military funeral.”

I came to learn that the Orioles are not the only team that does that. Many other teams do that. Dallas Stars fans scream out the word “stars,” Houston Rockets fans yell out “rockets,” and Atlanta Braves fans sing “the home of the Braves” — actually Kansas City Chiefs fans bellow “the home of the Chiefs.” And in Chicago, Blackhawks fans have developed a quote-unquote tradition since 1985 of trying to scream so loud that they drown “The Banner” out. Now that’s desecration.

Gotcha. So considering that the song had been around for so long, and as you said, it had been the unofficial anthem since its creation, why did it take Congress until 1931 to make it official?

I’ll try to be concise. It had a lot of rivals, and there was this idea that the people should decide. Why should politicians stick their neck out and promote one song when this is really not the most important issue? It’s controversial; it’s a firestorm. We had wars, we had economic development, and people weren’t really thinking about [designating and anthem]. There had been many attempts at imposing anthems from above. A lot of times a new monarch or revolutionary faction would come in and say, “this is our new national anthem to bind this country under my rule.” We wanted, in a democratic fashion, for it to come from below. And nothing ever forced the politicians’ hands. And so it just wasn’t seen as being as important as economic development or other things. Americans are famous for their laissez-faire attitude.

What finally happened is that there was just too much chaos. The Europeans at one point thought that “Hail Columbia” was our anthem. So when Thomas Edison came to the Paris Opera, in order to honor him, the band played “Hail Columbia.” Because that was the national anthem, right? And when Admiral George Dewey on a ship was with a German band, they wanted to honor the president so they played “Hail Columbia.” And finally, after all the confusion and chaos, we did need to get some sort of uniformity.

After World War I the veterans pushed for it, as did the people of Baltimore, just to get that official stamp. And why in 1931? You have a thesis in your mind before you do your research, and I thought that it had to be because of the Depression; binding the country together through patriotism during tough times. That wasn’t it at all. It was the culmination of not having had an anthem for so long, so they had to make a decision. And what put it over the top was a veteran’s scandal. There were several going on at the time. There were scandals within the Federal Veteran’s Bureau. The bonus issue also forced the hand of Congress. The veterans were mad at the federal government and especially [President Herbert] Hoover. And with one stroke of a pen, Hoover could mollify the veterans and give them what they want. In 1932, still without a bonus, they  marched on Washington and set up an encampment, and he sent in General Douglass McArthur to rout them. It’s called the Bonus March, and it’s a pretty dark day in American history.

There have been a variety of reinterpretations of song, with people riffing on the melody and changing the arrangement. Was there a performance that encouraged musicians to do that more often?

You can blame that on the 1960s. It’s interesting that Hendrix was not the first. When I had the idea for this book, not only were there all my questions about it, but I knew there was a whiff of controversy with Hendrix. And Hendrix was not the first to do a controversial version. The first rendition that drew controversy was Aretha Franklin at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. I have not heard it because NBC doesn’t have it in their archives, though it was broadcast it live. It may have gone out over the radio, but there’s no recording of it that exists. But there are letters to the editor complaining about her “Soul-Spangled Banner.”

The next, and probably one of the most historic versions, is José Feliciano, which was done live on a national scale and in a conservative setting at the 1968 World Series. He takes the melody and completely changes it. I think it’s an awesome arrangement; I love it. But it is not the melody that you and I know as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And there is no official version, so you’re free to do it. But he attracted a ton of controversy. He said he was blacklisted from the radio, and it would have killed his career if he had not written “Feliz Navidad” a few years later, which resurrected his career.

And then you have Hendrix, who had been doing the national anthem live with his solo guitar without controversy for about a year before Woodstock. And he did a studio version as well. It’s very different from his live version. But had Hendrix’s live version not been included in the Woodstock film or on the soundtrack, the only people who would have known about it would have been his fans who attended his concert – because he died in 1970, about a year after Woodstock. So it’s fascinating that Hendrix’s version may have gone completely under the radar.

But none of these folks were the first. The first people to really change the melody were the ragtime guys in the 1890s. And then the jazz big bands through the 1930s and up through the 1960s. For many traditional patriots, to jazz the anthem up was a four-letter word, so that’s nothing new with Hendrix.

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