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

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It’s been exactly two centuries since of the Battle of Baltimore and Francis Scott Key’s resulting poem, titled “The Defense of Fort M’Henry.” In the 200 years since its creation, that poem became popularized as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and is now enshrined as our national anthem. To commemorate its bicentennial, historian Marc Ferris wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely History Of America’s National Anthem,” a comprehensive account of the song’s story. We spoke to Ferris about his exhaustive research, the origins of the song, little-known facts about the anthem and a whole lot more.

When I was reading through your book, I was really impressed with the amount of detail you were able to find regarding “The Star-Spangled Banner.” How long did you spend researching it?

I spent a number of years, though there was an intensive three months thanks to a Smithsonian Institution fellowship. I hit all the major archives in Washington D.C. and in Baltimore, Maryland which is the home of “The Star-Spangled Banner and amassed a pile of papers. At one point I realized that I shouldn’t just write things down and decided to make copies for later reference. If you piled them up they’d probably come up to my thigh. I picked out the best material and distilled it into this book. The process took  several years, but that was the mother lode.

What first piqued your interest in the national anthem and doing that level of research about it?

I was in a Ph.D. program at Stony Brook University and I needed a topic for a seminar paper. I remember sitting in that department library and the thought entered my head:  “The Star-Spangled Banner is an historic song, it’s hiding in plain sight. What is its true heritage? It took 117 years from the time that Francis Scott Key wrote the poem for it to become the national anthem and I wondered, why the lag and why did Congress pass the anthem law in 1931. Then I started thinking about the song, and I realized that nobody has ever told me that they love the song. Everybody says that it’s hard to sing and they can’t remember the words. Also, that it’s warlike, and it’s about a war that nobody cares about. So I wondered, “Why is this song the national anthem?” We have a radio show host up here [in New York City], he’s a sports guy, and he says, “My favorite song is ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” Why? Because when he hears it, he knows that a game’s about to start. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of its musicality.

Most people know the basics: that Francis Scott Key wrote it after watching the Battle of Fort McHenry. Are there any other historical details that went into the song people might not know about?

Well certainly that it consists of four verses. We only sing one, and the first verse ends in a question mark, so the premise is unresolved. The song doesn’t make any sense if you just stop at the first verse. But that’s okay, I understand. In the fourth verse you have the phrase “In God is our trust.” If you look at your coins and your bills, the phrase “In God We Trust” is on them, so everyone is carrying a piece of “The Star-Spangled Banner” around with them. During the Civil War, the federal government put “In God We Trust” on the coins and in the 1950s Congress made that phrase the official motto. “E pluribus unum” is another unofficial motto, but the official motto of the United States in 2014 is “In God We Trust,” Established during the Cold War to show those atheistic Communists that we really meant business [laughs].

In the third verse, Key excoriated the British for lobbing over a thousand bombs at Fort McHenry. They burned down the White House and other public buildings in Washington, humiliated the country, and would have sacked Baltimore. They would have really taken it to Baltimore had they been able to penetrate the defenses. But they couldn’t, so in the heat of war he dissed the British. And it’s one of the great historical ironies that we fought two wars with the British, they were our most hated enemy, and then they turned into our best friend on the world scene. And when they became our friends [in the late 1800’s], a lot of people said, “We shouldn’t sing so harshly about the British. Let’s remove that third verse from textbooks and printed versions of ‘The Banner.’” And a lot of Irish, under the guise of patriotism, fought to ensure that all four verses would appear in print. They wanted laws that would ensure patriotic reverence, so they said, but they really wanted to ensure that the anti-British verses appeared to put a finger in England’s eye.

The political uses of the song like that flipped me out. Most every group across the entire political spectrum claimed to be true patriots and they reworked the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and played the song at their rallies to wrap their causes in the folds of the flag. I also thought that it was fascinating the way we used it abroad, first presenting it as a song of liberation and celebration of freedom, though it came to be viewed by Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Filipinos and Hawaiians [after the Spanish-American War in 1898] as one of oppression. Filipinos and Hawaiians wrote counter-anthems to question our legitimacy for taking over their land.

It sounds like they were keeping with the tradition of parody that was the basis of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And the melody actually comes from a British song – how did that happen?

The song was called “To Anacreon In Heaven.” That’s a great one, written around 1775. And it’s the song of a gentleman’s conviviality club. Famous composers Haydn and Hummel performed at their gathering place, the Crown & Anchor Tavern. They listened to classical music for hours and held banquets that lasted for hours. And their “anthem,” if you will, was “To Anacreon In Heaven.” They were called the Anacreontic Society, and Anacreon was a Greek poet whom one detractor called, “the dirty old man of Greek poetry.” And the first verse of “To Anacreon In Heaven” clearly celebrates carnal pleasures, drinking and music; if they’d had rock and roll back in the day they’d be celebrating sex and drugs and rock and roll. Frankly I think they were a little more bluster than reality. They likely weren’t ravaging comely lasses but they talked about it: “Voice, Fiddle, and Flute, no longer be mute, I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot,
And besides I’ll instruct you, like me, to intwine
The Myrtle of Venus [the goddess of love] with Bacchus’s Vine [the god of wine].”

So when Prohibition came around in the 1920s and the drive to make “The Banner” into the anthem heated up during the 1920s, many anti-Banner advocates objected to the song in part because of that homage to drinking in “To Anacreon In Heaven.” Isn’t that awesome?

That is really amazing. I guess the melody to that song would have been fairly well-known – did that help “The Star-Spangled Banner” become so popular and spread so fast?

Absolutely. The melody enjoyed widespread popularity. Eighty-four other compositions borrowed the melody before 1814; Key had even used it 1805. It’s challenging to us now, but I absolutely don’t buy this idea that it’s hard to sing and the words are hard to remember. Back in the day, people sang all four verses and they nailed it! At the time, people sang it as a solo until the last two lines: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Like a toast at a banquet, where long-winded orators would go on and on, ending with “Three huzzahs, John Quincy Adams!” And they’d all raise their glasses and yell, “Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!” and drink, a practice fueled by song.

Over the years, many journalists repeated the falsehood that Key wrote a poem and someone else put it to the melody. He specifically geared it to that tune. In part, Key’s indifference to his creation contributed to the myth. Throughout his life, Key remained modest and took no credit for his song, which allowed a Baltimore actor to take credit for pairing melody and words. The same thing happened with “America The Beautiful.” She [Katharine Lee Bates] did take credit for it, but she never promoted it or sought a dime from copyrights. She gave it as a gift to the American people, as did Key.

I think I even remember being told that false story in elementary school. How did “The Banner” overtake other popular songs such as “Hail Columbia” and “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” that were also being sung around that time?

It is interesting how the “Big Five” candidates for the national anthem in the 1800s evolved. Everyone laughs at “Yankee Doodle,” but it is the oldest and most popular patriotic song in our history. When the defenders of Fort McHenry hoisted the flag to which Key paid homage on the morning of September 14, 1814, the fort’s band played “Yankee Doodle.” Though ridiculed throughout the years for its melody and words, I think it’s possible to play a heartfelt version. I try to do it with me on guitar and vocals with banjo accompaniment [by John Giriat].

The next anthem alternative, “Hail Columbia,” would likely have been our national anthem — were not for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” unless “America the Beautiful” supplanted them both. Two Americans wrote “Hail Columbia, as opposed to “The Banner,” where Key married word to an English song. However, “Hail, Columbia ” is also a parody, where the poets wedded verses to a well-known instrumental piece, “The President’s March,” which came out in 1789. A decade later, an actor in Philadelphia approached Joseph Hopkinson to write words for the melody. The result, “Hail Columbia,” is a stilted, old-fashioned song inferior to “The Banner” and includes two passages in there that are hard to sing. It lacks the forcefulness, drama and edge of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

After “The Banner” comes along, “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” rose to popularity, though it could never be the national anthem because it borrows the melody of “God Save The King,” or “God Save The Queen,” depending on the gender of the monarch in power. Its continued popularity in the schools confused people to the degree that, as I discovered in the National Archives, ordinary Americans would write to the Secretary of War or the Secretary of the Navy asking them to clarify which song constituted the official national anthem. One high school principal in Washington state wrote that his community stood for “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee,” but reported that in another town, they stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There was mass confusion. Then you have “Columbia, The Gem Of The Ocean,” also of unsure origins and a seeming derivative of “Brittania, The Gem of the Ocean,” which rounded out the Big Five.

In the 1900’s, “America The Beautiful” rose to prominence as a poem and people tried to pair music to it, though even the writer of the poem, Katharine Lee Bates, who died in 1929, considered the pairing that we know today — the melody that Ray Charles sings and that we all sing in school — to not have been up to stuff as the definitive version. And again, she did not promote the song at all so there’s uncertainty surrounding her composition in the 1920s.

Before World War II, ”God Bless America” came along, but this song will never be the anthem, partly because “God” is so prominent and the melody is a bit campy. [Irving] Berlin wrote it as a toss-off during World War I and dusted it off for the Second World War in 1939. As with “America The Beautiful,” this song contains difficult passages to sing: “From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam, God bless America” – that’s a leap for an amateur singer. And the passage in “America The Beautiful”: “America, America, God shed his grace on thee” Is a little clunky and old-fashioned. It may not be the same melodic stretch as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but it’s still not a simple thing for amateurs to hit.

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