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Author of this essay:

Shi Ming Zhen
(March, 2000)

by Mink Zhen Shakya

Something really nice happened in Athens when Michael Phelps, who was the first American I saw win a gold medal, stood on the podium. He received his medal and wreath and then, as he stood at attention and removed the wreath to place it over his heart, the flag began to rise and the taped band began to play the national anthem.

We are used to letting national pride get us through the ordeal of hearing the anthem. When sung, the vocal range is such that only the Mormon Tabernacle Choir ought to attempt it. Even opera singers have a way of making "And the rockets red glare" sound like back-alley fish huckstering. Awful memories of Roseanne Barr's imitation of a red-neck ball player - honking and spitting her way through it; of innocent young girls whose memory is blanked by the less than indelible phrases; of popular recording artists who forget the words but then "recover" by faking their way through the uncharted zones beyond; of spread-out stadium sound systems that curl the lines into a bizarre kind of roundelay; of high school bands who seem always to be playing in different keys; and huge university marching bands who decompose the music as their various sections pass the microphone. We wince and "suck it up."

But when Michael Phelps stood there something more significant than the proof of his aquatic excellence occurred. An unknown orchestra played an unknown arranger's version of The Star Spangled Banner and it was... well.. beautiful.

For once, "And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air" wasn't blasted out by trumpets in that inane attempt to recreate the explosions. This time violins mourned the attack and suggested Francis Scott Key's recalled anxiety. It was the light of those exploding shells that illuminated the flag and reassured him that that Fort McHenry had not fallen. Listening to the anthem, it suddenly seemed clear that the lines ought not be brayed or blared, but whispered reverently... as those violins were doing. For some reason that only musicologists may understand, the gentle arrangement lent a poignancy to the lyrics that brought them into sharper focus and prompted us to look - if even only a little - at the facts that occasioned the lines. The wonder is that though the lyrics are drummed into us, nobody bothers to explain in any meaningful way the events that inspired them.

It's September, 1814, and the U.S. is definitely losing the War of 1812 with Great Britain. Washington has been burned. President Madison is in flight. Wedges have been driven into the fragile structure of the new republic - New England states are talking secession - and the British are preparing to take Baltimore. But first they have to take Fort McHenry, the harbor island fortress that guards the city.

A fleet of warships commences the attack. Francis Scott Key, a prisoner on the deck of one of the British ships, watches the agonizing twenty-five hour cannonade. Mysteriously, in the middle of the night, the bombardment ceases. Not being privy to Britain's military plans, Key has no clue about what is happening. Has the Fort surrendered? All through the dark hours he worries and waits. The Anthem records his anxiety and the relief and pride he feels when finally, at dawn, he sees the Stars and Stripes still flying. As if he can't believe his own eyes, he asks us to confirm the sight. The Fort has withstood the attack. The British fleet, battered and exhausted after firing fifteen hundred bombs and countless rockets, begins to withdraw. Baltimore is safe; and the course of the War has changed.

Key then projects his fear and pride into the future, asking any American who recites the poem to ask himself if he is as courageous and as dedicated to freedom as the defenders of Fort McHenry.

At least that's what we think he's asking. We can't be absolutely sure.

Most of us can't remember the words - and for two very good reasons: First, the lines are chopped up and glued together to make them fit the rhyming scheme. If there were a Geneva Convention to determine rules for the humane handling of phrases, rules that outlawed syntactical torture, our national anthem would probably wind up in on a world court's docket.

Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The second reason is that the music to which the poem was set is an old British drinking song - "To Anacreon in Heaven," and the musical stresses are awkward which, sober nation that we are, understandably contributes to our confusion.

The fight Francis Scott Key witnessed may have been perilous but the night-time light source did not warrant threatening trumpets. Fort McHenry defended itself. During the battle its cannons sank twenty-two British ships, forcing the British fleet to move back out of range. Distance seldom helps accuracy and much British ordnance was ineffective. The "red glare" was caused by newly developed Congreve rockets that spiraled wildly across the sky trailing red flames; and the "bombs bursting in air" was also a good thing. The 220 pound bombs had lit fuses designed to cause an explosion on contact; but many of them, whether due to defective construction or fuse burn-down in the increased distance, exploded prematurely. It may have been an awesome spectacle, but even a lawyer like Francis Scott Key knew an airball when he saw one. The effect was a blessed light, and the violins are the appropriate instruments to convey it.

Would we ever swap our anthem for another song? No. Should we? No.

Effete or just confounded critics keep trying to substitute less troublesome tunes - ones that are more melodic or representative of our ‘gentle' nature. But the Anthem, warts and all, is like Lincoln's face to us. We would not change a line of it. And, I suppose, its cobbled, jury-rigged lyrics belie the soundness of its engineering.

During WWII, as school kids, in assembly every morning we regularly sang three patriotic songs that we never hear any more. In those days we often referred to the U.S. as "Columbia." Yes, we were Columbians. (When people doubt this, it is necessary to remind them that the capital of the U.S. is Washington, D.C. - the District of Columbia.) So we sang, Oh Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean. I did a net search and was delighted to see that a few folks still sing it when raising the flag. It's a good, rousing song.

A second song we sang every morning was Waltzin' Matilda, which was then Australia's anthem. Since we had already swiped the melody of God Save The Queen for our own My Country, 'Tis of Thee, we substituted There'll Be Blue Birds Over The White Cliffs of Dover to honor England. Years later, I once sat with some Hussars and Grenadier Guards in the Fort George Hotel in Belize when some Australian yachtsmen came in. A certain "loyal opposition" tension followed. I tried to re-direct the stress between the men by announcing, "Here's to Dame Pattie. The New York Yacht Club cheats." Though this was common knowledge, the Australians suspected a trick until I led the group through Waltzin' Matilda in its entirety - which I still remember, word for word. (Who, among Brits, Yanks, and Aussies, could have foreseen the sad fate of the America's Cup?)

Australians swapped their anthem for another, which is their business. I'm glad we never swapped ours.

So here's to Athens and the unknown Lone Arranger. He scored a perfect ten with The Star Spangled Banner , and we owe him a gold medal.

Editor's note: Since publication of this essay we have learned that the unknown arranger is none other than the well-known composer, conductor, pianist and arranger, Canadian Peter Breiner.

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