I love my country, but patriotic songs tend to be a nonstarter.
I could never warm to the likes of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” or Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.” I respect someone for believing so passionately that they need to testify, but it smacks of jingoism for me.
But you know what doesn’t bother me and has nationalism in its DNA? Our national anthem.
I can’t count the amount of times I’ve heard “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It seems sort of omnipresent since it is fed to us since before we’re able to speak.
I helped sing it once, as part of a pack of coaches and the public address announcer at a prep football game in 2010. When the taped recording of the school’s band couldn’t be found, I suggested to the announcer that we crowdsource it. It went well, but I’m certain everyone is glad it was not my off-key warble carrying the performance.
That’s how prevalent the song is. Most Americans know it by heart.
That makes it easy to overlook the meaning of the words.
The lyrics are adapted from a Frances Scott Key poem about part of the Battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.
Key, a lawyer who moonlighted as a poet, met with British soldiers to orchestrate an exchange of troops on orders from President James Madison. Because Key and his companions learned of the Brits intent to storm Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, they were held captive until the conclusion of the overnight attack.
The poem details Key’s curiosity upon awaking in the morning, wondering if Fort McHenry had fallen to the British.
When focused on the words and not operating on autopilot, Key’s details about checking for the flag’s appearance speak of good old American optimism and pride. He continued to check for the flag throughout the battle, seeing it continue to fly under cover of darkness only thanks to the illumination of weaponry. I imagine the fiery orange glow of exploding munitions giving him quick, shadowy confirmation of the flag’s presence.
As triumphant as the final lines sound, Key intended them as a question: Do we still hold Baltimore? Is the flag still flying? “Does that star-spangled banner yet wave?”
It took a long time for Key’s poem and the tune to which it’s set – a British drinking song from the 18th century named “To Anacreon in Heaven” – to take hold as the patriotic tune it’s known as today. It didn’t even become the nation’s official anthem until 1931.
While there are many memorable renditions, three are almost universally recognized above all others.
Two of the best remembered are Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic throw down at Woodstock in 1969 and Whitney Houston lip-synching to her own recording at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. They’re interesting for their parallels – both on a colossal stage, both at a time when America was at war.
There’s also Marvin Gaye’s groovy rendition from the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, which somehow manages to change the song’s DNA without stripping its integrity. Although the result was a classic rendition that only Gaye could have delivered, the lead up to the performance was said to be fraught with doubt the famed R&B singer would even show.
Regardless of who is singing, we pause and stand when it’s performed. It’s out of reverence for those who came before us, people who fought for the principles and ideals we celebrate today on July Fourth, the sort of Americans who Key witnessed on that night in 1812.
I like our anthem because while it does hold the promise and hope of American ideals, it isn’t obnoxious in its support of our nation. It isn’t “America Over All.” It doesn’t have Abraham Lincoln riding a bald eagle, toting a semi-automatic rifle and screaming “ ‘Murrica!” in anyone’s face.
No, the way we use it today, Key’s words say, “Hey, people died so that you could sit here and watch this baseball game in peace. Take a second to think about that.”
And if you don’t want to think about that, at least take comfort in the knowledge that the next time you hear the anthem, I probably won’t be the person singing it.
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.