Booze, Blood, and the Star-Spangled Banner

article image
Image by Flickr user: SD Rebel / Creative Commons

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.”

As “The Star-Spangled Banner” grew in popularity, bands made it more playable by changing the key and slowing the tempo. (The tune was originally quite jaunty and irreverent, and to this day there is no officially sanctioned version.) Around the turn of the 20th century, the song was already used by the military during the raising of the flag, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” became an institution.

It has since lost its hold on the public. A recent Harris poll showed that 61 percent of American adults admit they do not know all the words, and most who think they do really don’t. (The second, third, and fourth verses are practically unknown.) Among teenagers, according to an ABC News poll, 38 percent don’t know the song’s name. Indifference toward “The Star-Spangled Banner” is so widespread that a coalition of supporters–including the entire congressional delegation of Maryland and honorary chair Laura Bush–joined forces in 2005 to unleash the National Anthem Project, an effort to teach the song to schoolchildren.

After 9/11, the American Coalition for a New National Anthem began advocating Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” as a replacement, but the Massachusetts-based organization has since gone into hibernation. Public figures ranging from Ray Charles to Ted Turner have spoken on behalf of “America the Beautiful,” and in the past few years essays about the overthrow of Key’s song have frequently appeared in newspaper op-ed pages, including those of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe. Six times between 1985 and 1995, then Democratic congressional representative Andy Jacobs of Indiana, a former marine, introduced bills to make “America the Beautiful” the national anthem; all died quietly. (Before the official adoption of “The Star-Spangled Banner” three-quarters of a century ago, the Music Supervisors of America, a group of education professors at Columbia University Teachers College, and the National Hymn Society publicly opposed it.)

A lot of people find “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be lacking in feeling, bellicose (the rarely sung third verse declares of the invading British, “Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution”), descriptive of a forgotten event, stale (the same tune served as the national anthem of Luxembourg before 1864), and difficult to navigate even for professional singers, who often apprehensively lead the song into “a kind of musical stream of consciousness,” as Balint Vazsonyi observed nearly a decade ago in the National Review.

Even Key’s biography is suspect: As district attorney of the city of Washington in 1835, he sought the death penalty for a mulatto slave who drunkenly yet unthreateningly appeared in a white woman’s bedroom one night holding an ax. President Andrew Jackson ultimately pardoned the slave, and Key unsuccessfully tried to connect an abolitionist with the crime.

If it ever were possible to dethrone Key’s song, finding the right replacement will be tricky. The most powerful national anthems–like France’s and Russia’s, which give you chills and keep ringing in your ears–tread a fine line between sentiment and cliché. “You can’t be obtuse, and you need to be direct,” says Gene Scheer, a composer whose best-known work, a song called “American Anthem,” was performed at the 2005 inauguration of President George W. Bush. “You mustn’t underestimate your audience–people aren’t stupid, and they know when they’re being pandered to. You can’t calculate your way to a good song. It has to be an honest expression of what you’re thinking, and it involves emotion and the best aspects of your intellect.”

“I still get a tingle up my spine when I hear “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but I feel better when I hear and sing “America the Beautiful,””  says Lynn Sherr, ABC news correspondent and author of America the Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation’s Favorite Song (PublicAffairs, 2001). “That song fills my eyes with tears, something I don’t get from “The Star-Spangled Banner.”” Many agree with Sherr, but the difficulty is satisfying everyone’s view of what America represents. Some citizens want a song that shows defiance in the face of outside threats, as the “The Star-Spangled Banner” does. Others want a tribute to our country’s distinctiveness, an evocation of spirituality, or simply a song that feels emotionally gratifying to sing. Is there a substitute anthem that meets all of these requirements?

The top contenders to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” include many lovely songs that, by and large, are falling into disuse. “We Shall Overcome,” however–an ode to determination and courage and American ideals if ever there was one–is widely known by children and adults alike. Perhaps that civil rights-era hymn, or some new song that sneaks into our consciousness, will be the one to inspire a future generation to rethink our national tune.

Jack El-Hai is the author of The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness (Wiley, 2005).

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.