Book review of O Say Can You Hear: A Cultural Biography of The Star Spangled Banner by Mark Clague

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It’s no surprise in this era of US history that our national anthem has come under scrutiny.

Its author was an enslaver, a founder of an organization that attempted to send emancipated African Americans to Africa, and a friend, ally, and brother-in-law of Roger Taney, the Supreme Court Justice who authored Dred Scott’s decision allowing the U.S -Citizenship was denied to black Americans. The rarely sung third verse of Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” asserts “no refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the darkness of the grave,” words that have sowed division ever since. The lyrics are militaristic and set to a tune that’s notoriously difficult to sing.

Indeed, controversy is nothing new for the anthem, whose lyrics were used repeatedly in the pre-war period to highlight the chasm between the nation’s promise to be “the land of the free” while allowing for the hereditary enslavement of millions. At the start of the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a new stanza celebrating efforts to free the enslaved; It was published in public school texts after the conflict ended, sparking book purges and originalist anthem censorship laws in several states. During World War I, peace activists wrote and performed pacifist versions of the song, prompting a media reaction heralding a break-away culture. Americans didn’t even establish it as their national song until the early 20th century.

If the purpose of a national anthem is to promote unity and patriotism, quite a few have argued that other songs of lesser weight – “America the Beautiful” and “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” are often quoted – are more appropriate The purpose was a tribute to a largely forgotten battle in the little-understood War of 1812, set to the tune of a ceremonial song from an exclusive British social club.

Diving into these treacherous waters is Mark Clague, professor of musicology at the University of Michigan and chairman of the board of directors of the nonprofit Star-Spangled Music Foundation, which seeks to separate fact from fiction for music educators when it comes to national and patriotic songs. His recent new book, O Say Can You Hear: A Cultural Biography of The Star-Spangled Banner, argues that our anthem is valuable precisely because its baggage is the nation’s baggage, “a primary document, a living record of the American… experiments in flow.”

“I have come to embrace its contradictions and celebrate its controversies,” he writes. “Replacing the Star-Spangled Banner could be a mistake. It would abandon the power of history, using both the troubles and triumphs of Key’s song as a compass navigating toward a more constructive future.” The anthem compels us to confront our uneven heritage and “is less of a call to song as a call to compose. The Star-Spangled Banner is an invitation to citizenship.”

Readers may or may not agree with Clague’s assessment – does the socially obligatory singing of a politically-charged song in a sports stadium or official ceremony really promote national self-examination? — but his book combines rigorous scholarship with clear, engaging writing on a variety of anthem-related questions: Who was Key and how did he come to write the lyrics? Where did the melody come from? How did Key’s song prevail over rivals as our official anthem in 1931? When and how did it become a sporting ritual? Why the fuss when patriotic Americans performed it in Spanish or with soul, gospel, jazz, or psychedelic rock renditions? How were his lyrics rewritten or protested in political protests when they were performed?

Clague also dispels a number of popular myths about Key and the song’s genesis. The Georgetown attorney and future DC District Attorney didn’t write the lyrics on the back of an envelope – he’d spent days on his truce ship composing them at a desk – and he deliberately wrote them to the already familiar tune of “The Anacreontic Song.” ‘, the anthem by the London club of the same name, which has already been a favorite of America’s songwriters. This was not a “drinking song” but a deliberately provocative piece that has been performed ritualistically at every meeting of the Anacreontic Society since it was composed for this purpose in the 18th century. (The drinking would follow.)

Clague shows how the song slowly and organically established itself as the national anthem, gaining a boost with each military conflict to defeat its rivals (particularly “Hail, Columbia”) long before Congress gave it official status in 1931. A musicologist, he has the vocabulary to bring melodies and certain performances to life with words, a skill he uses adeptly to cite examples as diverse as the melody of the Anacreontic Song and Jimi Hendrix’s epic “Banner” performance in to analyze Woodstock.

Clague takes a moderate position on Key himself. He acknowledges that the Maryland native owned more than a dozen enslaved people; that he co-founded and passionately supported the American Colonization Society (whose goal of sending free black Americans to West Africa was vehemently condemned by Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and other prominent abolitionists); and that his aggressive and legally flawed persecution of a local abolitionist helped spark the Washington City “race riot” of 1835, when white mobs attacked black churches, schools, restaurants, and businesses. But Clague pays much more attention to the anti-slavery side of Key’s complicated ledger: his regular condemnation of slavery as “a great moral and political evil”; his career in supporting black men, women and children seeking freedom in court, including a successful attempt to free 131 people held captive aboard an illegal slave ship; and his liberation of many of his own enslaved people during his lifetime.

“Key was on the wrong side of history, and his words and actions are inexcusable,” writes Clague. But Keys’ “attempts to find a pragmatic solution to slavery reveal a more chaotic struggle at odds with a simple narrative of slavery acceptance. It is also the chaotic, tumultuous, and evolving history of America.” Readers, in turn, may or may not agree with his stance—my interpretation of the evidence is less sympathetic—but he presents his case competently.

Clague also assembles a largely exculpatory argument regarding the infamous third verse of our anthem. In most accounts, “hire and slave” refers to two types of infantry units stationed against Fort McHenry: the British Regulars (the hired) and Colonial Marines, the black men who escaped slavery and the King’s invitation to the battle for the crown (the slaves.) Clague argues, based on a careful analysis of what Key did and did not know about the battle when he wrote the lyrics—and the fact that the words are in the singular—that they to describe British Major-General Robert Ross, who was killed in the attack and, unlike the Americans, was a paid soldier (or ’employee’) and a ‘slave’ or subject of the king, a common slur of the British in 1814.

Regardless, Clague notes that Key never intended to write a national anthem as he watched the shelling of Baltimore’s defenses from the deck of a ship. But the song nonetheless etched itself “deeply into the collective American psyche” in a way no other song has. “The sheer weight of this heritage, reinforced by more than two centuries of usage, is the song’s greatest asset,” he writes. Clague suggests that this might be for the best: “An anthem lyrics like Key’s that celebrate the nation’s ideals while bearing the burdens of its contradictory history – both its triumphs and its struggles – can be an asset and help to to find the way forward.”

Colin Woodard is the author of six books, including American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood. He is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University.

A Cultural Biography of the Star Spangled Banner

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/07/01/an-anthem-reflecting-wonder-warts-nation-that-sings-it/ Book review of O Say Can You Hear: A Cultural Biography of The Star Spangled Banner by Mark Clague

Chris Estrada

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