Episode 15 (formerly 1603): The National Anthem


Today’s episode is about America’s national anthem. Its name is “The Star-Spangled Banner”; it’s a song about America’s flag. It was written on September 13, 1814, by Francis Scott Key, a successful Washington, D.C., lawyer. It has four verses, though only the first verse is sung at any official function. The lyrics to Verse 1 are as follows:

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 thru 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?

Because the English used in the song is very old and Key used lots of poetic language, the lyrics are very hard to understand. Basically, it says, “Do you see the flag this morning that was flying last night? It flew throughout this overnight battle and we saw it because of light from the bombs. Does the flag still fly today? Did America win the battle?”

If you want to know the melody and words of the other verses, many recordings with lyrics can be found at online sites such as YouTube.

It’s helpful to know the situation in which Key wrote the words in order to better understand their meaning. In June of 1812, America declared war on Great Britain for trade disputes and other disagreements. This conflict, known as the War of 1812, lasted for two and a half years.

In August of 1814, British troops invaded the Washington, D.C., area, burning many buildings, including the White House. During these attacks they captured a prominent surgeon and took him to Baltimore on a ship. President James Madison sent Francis Scott Key to Baltimore to negotiate the surgeon’s release.

Key boarded the British ship in Baltimore’s harbor and successfully bargained for the prisoner. But the British did not allow him to return to Baltimore until the next day. They planned an attack on Ft. McHenry, a fortress on the water in Baltimore, and did not want Key to give the Americans any information he might have about their plans.

Therefore, Key had to stay eight miles away on his boat in the harbor during the fight. He saw the bombs and missiles being launched from the British ships at Ft. McHenry. The attack continued overnight. Key used a spyglass the next morning to see whose flag flew over Ft. McHenry. If the British flag was there, it meant the British had won the fight. However, Key saw that the American flag was still flying, which meant that the Americans had won the battle.

An interesting side note: The flag that Key saw through his spyglass after the battle still exists. It is preserved and on display at the Smithsonian Institute museum in Washington, D.C.

He wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. The original name of the song was titled “Defence of Ft. McHenry”. The melody he had in mind was from a British pub song and is the same melody used today. The song became very popular because of its patriotism. In fact, people still call America’s flag the Star-Spangled Banner, and they still think of their country as “the land of the free and the home of the brave”.-

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson announced that the song should be played at all official state functions. However, it wasn’t until 1931 that the song was adopted as America’s national anthem. Now it is played at the beginning of state functions, sporting events and many other gatherings.

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