Booze, Blood, and the Star-Spangled Banner

A noble quest to replace the National Anthem with a winner

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    Image by Flickr user: SD Rebel / Creative Commons

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In 1992 Anders Skaar, an executive headhunter with negligible musical talent, set up a bare-bones organization called Anthem! America and put out a call for composers and lyricists to submit new songs that could replace “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which he found both hard to sing and hard to swallow.

“It ranges an octave and a half,” he says. “For most of us, a song should lie within an octave to remain singable. And it’s not really our song. Francis Scott Key wrote the words, but the music supposedly comes from an English drinking song. I thought we should have an anthem that was our song.” In addition, Skaar hoped to find a national hymn that was inspirational, understandable for people of all ages, and not in the category of what he called “we-drink-our-enemy’s-blood type songs.”

Dozens of entries, addressed to Skaar’s home in Raleigh, North Carolina, poured in from all over the country. A panel of musicians and academics judged the winner of the competition to be “America, My America,” a composition by an Indiana music teacher and two lyricists from Tennessee who were inspired by the view from the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

Skaar immediately went to work promoting “America, My America” and trying to raise prize money for its creators. He circulated tapes of the winner and nine runners-up to radio stations and record companies, but no one was interested. It seemed that despite the public’s lackadaisical attitude toward actually singing the song, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had achieved sacred status. Ever since Congress adopted the anthem in 1931, in fact, many Americans have viewed any attempt to replace it as sacrilegious. “Republicans thought it was a Democratic conspiracy, and Democrats thought it was a Republican conspiracy,” Skaar says. He eventually stopped advocating the new anthem and now serves on the board of a Raleigh charity that distributes Christian books to prisons, shelters, and missions.

Francis Scott Key wrote the words that would become the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814, after he watched an American force that was displaying a gigantic battle flag at Fort McHenry in Maryland withstand a British naval bombardment. Key set his poem to a well-known tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which was a tribute to an ancient Greek poet who celebrated the joys of eating, drinking, and arguing. John Stafford Smith composed the piece around 1780 as the signature song for a gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London who dubbed themselves the Anacreontic Society.

Key had previously set at least one other poem to the same tune, and dozens of other lyricists used the music as the starting point of their comic, sentimental, and bawdy compositions. But Key’s version gave expression to “something important in American history,” says Deane Root, a member of the music faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. “The country had been attacked, and even though its forces were unable to defend Washington, they were able to hold this fort. The song represents a successful national defense.”

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