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star-spangled banner

16 november 2014

In a note to Star-Spangled Banner, Marc Ferris notes that "the song has never previously received a broad narrative treatment" (289). Since it's never likely to receive one again, Ferris squeezes in as much information as he can. The results are well worth the squeeze.

There's not much plot in Ferris's narrative. And it has an uninspiring hero. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a clunky poem set to an earwormy tune, and its good associations are limited to the fact that when you hear it struck up, you're usually only a few minutes away from the start of a baseball game. That pleasant connotation is immediately undermined by the fact that you have to spend two of those minutes listening to "The Star-Spangled Banner." But eventually you get to its inexplicable closing words "Play Ball!" and the long national wait is over. Seriously, song and sport are here locked in a deathgrip than benefits neither. Ferris quotes Nat King Cole: "If you do nothing else in your life, don't ever sing the national anthem at a ballgame" (218).

But then, most national anthems are hideous. They are designed to be played in uninspiring arrangements by bands more fearful of making a mistake than inspiring either patriotism or enjoyment. I have never heard "Deutschland über alles" played in Germany, and for that matter neither have most Germans; it's doesn't have nice overtones (even though the original intent of "Germany above all" was simply to say that the people of a divided German-speaking Central Europe should place Germany ahead of their local allegiances … come to think of it, that doesn't sound much better). The UK anthem always sounds to Americans as if they're ripping off "My Country Tis of Thee." The Irish have "The Soldier's Song," which frankly sounds like it was ordered from a catalog. For many years, in fact, I was under the impression that Tommy Makem's "Four Green Fields" was the Irish national anthem, and it would be a distinct improvement. "La Marseillaise" is the best, perhaps because of its bloodthirsty origins as a revolutionary tune. It's not in origin a national anthem; it's one vision of France that won out over competing visions.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" is, too. Although the product of an international war in 1814, Francis Scott Key's ballad became the anthem of the Union during the American Civil War. But just as "La Marseillaise" came to stand for a unified national identity in France, "The Star-Spangled Banner," Ferris shows, became a rallying point during the period of Reconciliation that followed Reconstruction. Confederates never played the song, because the Banner stopped being their flag. But they had nothing much against it, and postbellum, it rapidly lost its Yankee connotations.

For several ensuing generations, Ferris documents, the Anthem was perceived as anything but hideous. Some of his most interesting citations come from ultra-patriotic texts that span the decades 1890-1960. During these years, studded by expansionism, war, and the rise to superpower, the popularity of "The Star-Spangled Banner" condensed into respect and then congealed into a solemnity that went beyond reverence and bordered on fanaticism. It was no longer enough to sing and cheer, no longer enough to uncover and salute; the Anthem's advocates kept trying to legislate a canonical version of the song to serve as shibboleth for one's fealty to flag and country.

Ferris quotes a certain Mrs. Leetch, "secretary of the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies," as saying to Congress in 1958:

We have to re-educate a whole generation of young people in an appreciation of things American because they have been brainwashed through the new educationists and frontier thinkers away from Americanism. (197-98)
Such paranoia has its roots in earlier xenophobias and Red Scares and Yellow Scares and basically anything-but-lily-white Scares. In 1932, VFW historian J.I. Billman warned that
there are in our country powerful groups of men and women who not only fought the "Star Spangled Banner" bill at every turn, but are constantly working against adequate national preparedness. (163)
One would snicker if the 2014 election hadn't been contested in part over fears that They don't want to seal our borders against Ebola.

But not everyone in the mid-20th century was quite so uptight. A no-less-imposing-sounding character than Colonel Moss of the United States Flag Association put his full faith in the secular-"sacramental" nature of the banner and its song, but also cautioned against "a sort of 'glorified idolatry' … blind and excessive adulation of the Flag" (164). Outright criticism came from war-weary patriots who, having lived through two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam, and still living under the shadow of The Bomb, were just sick of hearing about all the bursting in air. José Feliciano famously gave the anthem a folk-Latin beat, and Jimi Hendrix melted it down and re-cast it in his own image. Some listeners went as ballistic as the rockets over Fort McHenry. Others realized that Feliciano, Hendrix and others mainly wanted their audiences to hear the song afresh, not just zone out and wait for the first pitch.

By 2014, the "Banner" has retreated somewhat to become mostly just the baseball song. Despite broad attention to competing anthems over two centuries, Ferris does not look much at the post-9/11/2001 rise of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" as the unofficial national hymn. We hear GBA at ballgames too now, and though Ferris points out that it's equally hard to sing, people seem to have a slightly easier time remembering the words. I think that Berlin's song has gained popular traction because it starts with "God": a highly ecumenical God that the Jewish songwriter invoked in the spirit of a diverse America, but which believers are free to hear as their own jealous Deity.

I was most of the way through Star-Spangled Banner before I (d'oh!) figured out the exigence to publish it now, and in Maryland: 2014 is the bicentennial of the Baltimore battle that gave Francis Scott Key the idea for the poem, and Johns Hopkins has taken the opportunity to give Marc Ferris the definitive word on the song. It's a welcome addition to cultural history, not least because Ferris remains undogmatic on the question of whether popular culture merely reflects, or actively shapes, its civilization (50). He shows that "The Star-Spangled Banner" has done a bit of both.

Ferris, Marc. Star-Spangled Banner: The unlikely story of America's national anthem. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.