Our national anthem celebrated its two hundredth birthday. I caught a little of the celebration in Baltimore as I watched the Baltimore Orioles play the New York Yankees on TV. The Orioles had special uniforms made for the occasion. [For those that don’t know, I am a HUGE Baltimore Orioles fan, and they are having a magical year!]
As many of you know, The Star Spangled Banner was composed as a result of a battle of Fort McHenry outside of Baltimore during the War of 1812.
What I was surprised to learn was that Francis Scott Key wrote the song while on a British ship. He had boarded to negotiate an exchange of prisoners, and since they had overheard about the battle plans were held captive until the battle was over. So Francis Scott Key on September 14th, 1814 watched the British bombardment of his home city from an enemy vessel and watched as the attack failed. How much emotion must have gone into that song as he watched the stars and stripes wave defiantly?
All Americans know that first stanza and I’ll reproduce it here because it’s so stirring.
O 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;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
My heart stirs whenever the singer reaches the “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave” line. But there are three more stanzas we never hear, and perhaps it’s a good thing. They don’t seem nearly as stirring as the first. You can read the other stanzas on the Wikipedia entry.
First, here is a dramatic telling of the history of the song. Caution. If you’re an old Conservative like me, it might bring a tear to your eye.
I have to agree with those who claim that the best all time rendition of The Star Spangled Banner was given by Whitney Huston at the Super Bowl in 1991.
Boy she could sing. If you know of a better rendition or a favorite , post the link. I would love to hear it.
UPDATE: 16 September 2014, 8:29 PM, EST
While I was singing the song this morning I realized why that penultimate line is so stirring. It’s poetic effect. Every line but that one has a caesura in it. A caesura is a natural pause in the line built in by the syntax. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesura I’ll show you with the first two lines. The double slash indicates the pause break, or caesura.
O say can you see // by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed // at the twilight's last gleaming,
So when we get to the seventh line and it doesn’t have a pause, the effect is a forward marching thrust: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave.” And it’s no coincidence that the climax of the stanza is in that line, the flag defiantly waving. And then when the caesura returns in the last line, it provides a coming home closure. Nicely done.