Controversy over "The Star-Spangled Banner" as America's National Anthem

"It is likely that the lads who sang the original version, in a state of bacchic bliss, were unaware of the song's vocal difficulties. Unfortunately, most of us today who sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' are cold sober."

Yes, it is indeed America's national anthem to which George London, former Metropolitan Opera baritone, so disdainfully refers. To fully understand his reasoning, let us first examine the facts. . .

There was in eighteenth-century London a certain society known as the Anacreontic Society. The membership thereof devoted one evening each week to entertainment, fine food, and abundant drink. To honor their celestial patron, Anacreon, and those pleasures with which he had provided mankind, a president of the society, Ralph Tomlinson, wrote a poem which he titled "Anacreon in Heaven". The music to which Tomlinson's words were set is generally attributed to John Stafford Smith, but there is also evidence to suggest that it might have been written by Tomlinson himself, by Samuel Arnold, or by Thomas Arne (the composer of "Rule Britannia").

After the publication of "Anacreon" on August 1, 1778, the song became very popular in England, and soon crossed the Atlantic to America. In 1798, an American, Robert Treat Paine, wrote a patriotic poem, "Adams and Liberty", and set it to the same tune. Paine's song became quite well known among Americans. Five years after "Adams and Liberty" was published, another young American, Francis Scott Key (born August 1, 1779), tried his hand at setting the same tune to a little poem of his own which honored the heroes of Tripoli. This was to be valuable experience.

During the War of 1812, an American physician, Dr. William Beanes of Maryland, was captured by British troops and brought aboard a warship. Two friends of the doctor, Francis Scott Key and John Skinner, were granted permission to go aboard to communicate with the British concerning Beanes' release. After some time the British were persuaded to release him, but Skinner, Key, and Beanes had to remain aboard until after the British siege, so that they would not reveal plans of the attack. During the night of September 13–14, 1814, the British fleet bombarded Fort McHenry (in Baltimore) relentlessly. When Key awoke on the 14th, he was greeted by the rather surprising sight of the American flag still waving over the fort. He began writing on an envelope a poem expressing his thoughts. After his release, he gave the finished poem to his brother-in-law, Judge J. H. Nicholson of Baltimore. Some sources say it was at this point that Nicholson suggested the tune. (This is doubtful, however, because Key was familiar with the tune and had used it before.) Nicholson took the poem to the office of the Baltimore American, where the only staff member at work was Samuel Sands, a fourteen-year-old office boy. But Sands went ahead and ran off a few copies of the poem on handbills, which, incidentally, do not bear Key's name.

According to tradition, the first public rendition was given by Ferdinand Durang in a Baltimore tavern in 1814. People thought the song was novel, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" grew in popularity. Indeed, in 1843, it was well enough known to have a parody written of it. Members of the Temperance movement wrote:

"O who has not seen by the dawn's early light
Some poor bloated drunkard to his home weakly reeling? . . ."

In 1898, Admiral Dewey ordered the song to be played on official occasions. President Wilson, in 1916, made an Executive Order establishing "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the United States' national anthem. In the 1920's, the push for legislation to the same effect reached full force, as about one hundred fifty patriotic organizations and the signatures of some five million persons, collected on petitions by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, pressured Congress. Finally, Charles Linthicum, a Maryland representative, issued a resolution in the House. It passed. It took until the third go-around in the Senate, but when the resolution passed there on March 3, 1931, President Hoover signed it immediately.

Yet it would be foolish to think that all of this action received universal support, and even greater folly to pretend that that the national anthem is now loved and respected by every American. Indeed, criticism of both the music and the lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner" has been going on for a long time. George London's comments sum up the musical problems well:

Consider a hypothetical performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on, let us say, Columbus Day. The festivities begin with the national anthem. Our troubles start almost immediately. The first two tones are fine: "O-oh" emerges with confidence. But the word "say", down on a low B-flat, is, for the sopranos and tenors, just hot air. (All are singing in unison, of course, not in four-part harmony.) Things improve until we get to "twilight's last gleaming". "----ming is down on another B-flat, kind of a grunt. Between this and "whose bright stars" there is no chance for a proper breath. Soon everyone is out of rhythm. The same occurs after the low B-flat of "streaming". Then, with no time to grab a desperately needed breath, one is confronted by the wicked high F of the rockets' "red glare". The baritones and the basses have by now capitulated and are singing an octave lower. The sound of the congregation has become hesitant and thin, and so it remains through the high F of "land of the free", normally attempted only by the sopranos and the tenors. Finally, all the voices join in confidently on "and the home of the brave!" which only partially dissipates the general malaise. Everybody sits down with a thud.
In 1930 readers of Literary Digest read:
Shall we make Congress accept the "Star-Spangled Banner" as the official national anthem? . . . what "The Nomad" of the Boston Transcript thinks a greater need is to make it singable.
Newsweek magazine felled two in one blow: "Harry S Truman compared it with the 'Missouri Waltz' — which he hates." And at the 1968 Democratic convention, Harry Reasoner saw fit to remark that the musical aspects of "The Star-Spangled Banner" "leave something to be desired". Among the indignant replies to Reasoner's comment was one from a lady inviting him to "go back to Russia".

Even if one can accept the concept of having an English drinking song featuring a range of a perfect twelfth as a national anthem, there is still the problem of the lyrics. Senior Scholastic, paraphrasing remarks of Alan Rich, music critic of New York magazine, stated:
"The Star-Spangled Banner" was written aboard a ship in Baltimore during the War of 1812, describing "an obscure incident in an obscure war". The only glories of the United States it tells about are the glories of war — and any real patriot knows there's a lot more in this country to be proud of than war exploits.
Frank Sinatra says the lyrics "have no relation to what this country is all about. In this time of trouble and misunderstanding, they talk about guns and bombs." George London adds, "The words do not automatically communicate their message — a test of good lyric writing." This may appear a mere technicality, yet it is indeed relevant, for a national anthem should have lyrics whose meaning is simply, clearly, and powerfully communicated. The pompous language of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (no doubt in combination with its musical difficulties) provides it with an unfortunate stigma — people don't generally sing it unless they have to. "Did you ever hear a battalion of troops on the march sing it as the Germans sing 'Die Wacht am Rhein' or 'Das Deutschen Vaterland'? Or as French soldiers sing the 'Marseillaise'?" asks the Boston Transcript. Even a United States senator, Thomas J. McIntyre of New Hampshire, mentioned in one speech that "it lacks a certain emotional feeling". Many people, it might be added, are not even aware of the at least somewhat unsavory words in verses after the first. "Try to maintain a radiant spirit," challenges one article, "while singing 'Their blood has washed out their foul footstep's pollution'." "'The Star-Spangled Banner'," concludes the same article, ". . . has not proved to be an adequate expression of popular sentiment and devotion."

But twelfth, bombs, blood, and all, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is the national anthem. It has its established place in the scheme of American tradition, and there are those who say it ought to remain there. "Perhaps some French people dislike 'La Marseillaise' and some English dislike 'God Save the Queen'," says the other half of a two-faced Senior Scholastic article which has already been quoted several times. "'The Star-Spangled Banner' survived as a patriotic song for over one hundred years before it was even adopted — testifying to its timelessness." The article also makes reference to the "'lump-in-the-throat' feeling" associated with the song, and claims that the "melody sustains . . . excitement". Abe Burrows, a playwright, is quoted, saying the lyrics "read like a screenplay". Leopold Stokowski, a symphony conductor, says, "'The Star-Spangled Banner' is part of our history and should be kept as a memory of the effort many men made for that wonderful thing we enjoy in the United States — freedom." "'Flag-waving'," concludes the article, "should never go out of style."

The fact remains that if "The Star-Spangled Banner" is kept in its present form, there will be a very great number of dissatisfied people in the United States. Some change is practically inevitable, so the discussion basically boils down to a matter of whether "The Star-Spangled Banner" should be somehow changed to make it a better national anthem or should be replaced altogether. Many attempts to effect the first choice in some manner have been made. In 1908–1912 the National Education Association made an essentially unsuccessful attempt to revise the music. A contest of major proportions in the 1920's brought a "newly doctored, newly copyrighted version" of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Geoffrey O'Hara. One review of O'Hara's version reads:
News of Geoffrey O'Hara's altered and copyrighted version of The Star Spangled Banner serves to remind the public that the national anthem is most difficult to sing. . . . It serves to remind the ironic that . . the tune is that of an Eighteenth Century drinking song. . . The whole thing is simply a disappointment.
In 1938 Vincent Lopez, professor of jazz at New York University and a "big-band" leader, formulated the idea of "cutting two tones off the top of the difficult passages, occurring on the words 'and the rockets' red glare', and 'land of the free'". When he put this plan into effect at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, the "audience stood up, applauded mildly, but failed to sing". At about the same time, Arthur Fiedler, conductor of the Boston "Pops" Orchestra, suggested the opposite: raising the lowest notes, and then lowering the key of the entire song. Literary Digest said the "best compromise" would be to lower the key of the song without tampering with the notes. Thus the low notes would be mere grunts, but this would be OK "so long as the top tone on 'glare' and 'free' rings out good and loud". Big help! During World War II Igor Stravinsky made "as a patriotic gesture" what "was for him a conservative choral arrangement". He was promptly collared by Boston police for "tampering with national property". The Music Educators National Conference made attempts at the 1967 and 1968 conventions of the N.E.A. to change the words of "The Star-Spangled Banner" — without success. One of the latest and best-known revisions was Jose Feliciano's "'soul' version", sung before the fifth game of the 1968 World Series. Feliciano received many irate comments, but Lucy Monroe, known as the "star-spangled soprano" because she has sung the national anthem so many times, said, "If this will make them [the younger generation] appreciate their country more, I say go ahead."

Those who advocate replacing "The Star-Spangled Banner" fall into two categories — those who have some other particular song in mind and those who think a new song should be written. As for the first group, Senior Scholastic suggests "America the Beautiful", "God Bless America", "This Land is Your Land", and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", while George London considers "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" the "finest of all", and explains his objections to other candidates. Henry Schmid, in a 1934 letter to Literary Digest, suggested "The Stars and Stripes Forever", with the now forgotten original words. Christian Century suggests "America the Beautiful", but ventures into the other group by considering "a wholly new piece born of the turmoil of our own times". In 1917 the New York Globe instituted a competition for a new national anthem, but in the Globe article announcing the contest Dr. Frank Damrosch said, "We will never have a great national anthem until someone first writes a great national poem." In 1966 Saturday Review suggested another contest, to be sponsored by the National Foundation of Arts and Humanities. A screening committee consisting of a statesman, a historian, a poet, a popular versifier, and a musical-comedy lyricist, among others, would be appointed. Any person could submit a poem to this committee. All but two poems would be weeded out, and a popular runoff would be held to select the winner. Then people would send in original melodies to fit the words. The top ten would be selected and would be widely broadcast through the media. Then the people of the United States would vote on these ten. Write-in votes for "The Star-Spangled Banner" would, of course, be counted. The winner would then be "a truly national anthem".

America needs a national anthem. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is playing that role in an official sense only. It is no longer serving the people of the United States, so like a public official it must be replaced. This matter is a good test of democracy — government by the people — in the United States. Will America ever have "a truly national anthem"? Why not have that contest and find out‽