SocraticGadfly: 'O Say Can You Hear?' A cultural and musical history of the National Anthem

July 04, 2022

'O Say Can You Hear?' A cultural and musical history of the National Anthem

O Say Can You Hear?: A Cultural Biography of

O Say Can You Hear?: A Cultural Biography of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Mark Clague
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An interesting, lighter-side at times and rollicking, but deeper at times and with several "new to me" items look at the history of the writing of the Star Spangled Banner and its development. This is expanded from my original review, especially in the last couple of paragraphs.

Several brief points and a couple of longer ones.

First, Key had three days to write it; it wasn’t an overnight flash of inspiration. (That's now long he, an official U.S. government prisoner exchange negotiator, and the man who was their target for exchange, were detained during the battle for Baltimore.)

Second, he’d written another song to Anacreon’s words in 1805, celebrating Stephen Decatur’s naval attack on Tripoli. (Also the source of words in another famous American patriotic song!) That said, Clague rightly notes this wasn’t a poem, it was a song, or rather, song lyrics from the start. (Key also wrote several hymns, some of which are in Protestant hymnals yet today.)

Third, Anacreon wasn’t a “drinking song.” Rather, both words and tune were, for the Anacreontic Society, part of its program of giving professional musicians a glee-club type performance piece. Plenty of details about the club are in the book.

Fourth, additional verses have been written from time to time. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr’s Civil War verse is surely the best and the one that has most survived to today. Go here.

Fifth, it was already an unofficial national anthem of sorts by the Mexican War. See the last paragraphs for more.

Sixth, the National Anthem was being played at opening day games in baseball long before the enforced patriotism of WWI. Related, Clague notes modern “paid patriotism” as uncovered by John McCain and more. And tackles not only Kaepernick, but the likes of Tommy Smith and John Carlos long before him. He also notes that they weren’t the first, but that a Black woman, Eroseanna Robinson, remained seated during the anthem at the 1959 Pan Am Games.

Related to THAT, he notes that “parodies,” based on the Anacreon tune still, began in the 1840s and included ones tied to the temperance movement, abolition, and the early pitch for women’s rights. Next came antiwar versions.

Seventh, Clague has a good breakdown of modern Super Bowl performances.

Eighth, Clague tackles the problematic “hireling and slave” line in the third verse, and takes it to most likely, in context of its time, to refer respectively to conscript troops and British subjects of a king. In short, a follow-up on Declaration of Independence propaganda. He adds that maybe Key intended it to refer to British Gen. Robert Ross, noting its singular while previous third-verse references are plural. I find this not convincing.

Key personally? Yes, a slaveholder. Also, one of the founders of the American Colonization Society. He freed several slaves in his lifetime and the rest in his will (pending his wife’s death). A representer of Blacks in court, including on freedom petitions, that Clague notes saw nearly 60 former slaves freed. At the same time, he as federal district attorney for DC under Jackson, he prosecuted an abolitionist after an 1835 slave riot. But, he also distanced his stances, or tried to, from other ACS members. He never pushed any of his own slaves that he freed into colonization. Clague goes into much more depth to present a nuanced, in-his-times, picture of Key.

In the next chapter, Clague looks at “modern” takes in general. These include Jose Feliciano, of course, Jimi Hedrix, Aretha Franklin and others. He does so in a way that general refutes urban legends, or rather rural legends, since they’re normally by conservative White folk.

From there, it’s on to Rosanne Barr, which a sympathetic yet critical take on it, and for you classical aficionados like me, Stravinsky’s orchestration. Note: I generally like this, but do not like the removed dotted rhythm partway into the 2nd/4th lines. Done by itself, it makes it stand out too much, at least in instrumental-only performances. I’d rather he kept all syncopation but cut the dotted quarters by a sixteenth and augmented the eighth notes by a sixteenth. It does sound less glaring in choral versions, but nonetheless, that part doesn't float my boat. 

Clague also slips in a few observations about medleys of "The Star Spangled Banner" with other music, as done by modern artists.

Back to the brief note above that it had apparently started becoming our National Anthem already at the time of the Mexican War, Clague ends with plaints against it, and suggested alternatives. 

Up until that time, the Civil War "Hail Columbia" was the primary challenger, he says. (The music, he informs us, was written as the original Presidential "march" for Washington before being replaced by "Hail to the Chief.") Today, he notes, it would take much less a change in the 1931 federal law and instead a cultural shift. That said, per what I said about the third verse? Clague addresses that again, too. "America the Beautiful," he mentions first, and part of me would take that, precisely because of its lack of martiality. On the other hand, it's explicitly religious in every verse. (Until you get to the fourth verse, and it's professed mottoe of "In God is Our Trust," the Star Spangled Banner has no such reference.) It's also still too White-centric, especially in later verses. "God Bless America" is way too religious for me. Second, Clague notes it’s still under copyright.  His solution, in the sports world, namely the NFL? Start the season with the National Anthem, then have teams play a  new alternative every week.
"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" might be a fun eff you to Southern wingnuts, but it's also too religious. "America" is also religious, plus would need a new tune.

So, outside of something like "We Shall Overcome" slipping in,


That said, there is one error of note. A professional musicologist should know better than to call Herb Alpert Hispanic.

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