The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

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On this day in 1814, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer from the Washington area, penned “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” a poem later set to music which became our national anthem. Key, detained aboard a British ship overnight, witnessed the fort being bombarded by the British during the War of 1812. He spent an anxious night uncertain whether the fort had surrendered or not. When dawn broke, a gentle breeze lifted the flag hanging limp on the main flagpole and revealed the fifteen stars and stripes of the national ensign. Key was inspired by the sight of a lone U.S. flag still flying over Fort McHenry at daybreak Most people have heard this story about how the poem came to be written, but I’m not sure how many know that it has four verses. Set to the tune of a British gentleman’s club theme song of the time, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” may seem ironic may to us, but it was common practice at the time. Even hymn writers used popular melodies (including drinking songs) since the people knew them. The saying, “why should the devil have all the good tunes,” variously attributed to CharlesWesley, Martin Luther, William Booth, John Newton and Isaac Watts, appears to have come from a sermon by a British pastor, Rowland Hill who said in 1844, “The devil should not have all the best tunes.” (He wascalling for improved church music.)

“The Star Spangled Banner” became the official national anthem relatively recently, in 1931. Before that it vied with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (using another British tune) and “Hail Columbia,” composed in 1789 by Philip Phile for the inauguration of George Washington. Joseph Hopkinson added lyrics in 1798, and the song was used as an unofficial national anthem until it lost popularity after World War I. It is functions as “walk on music” the Vice-President. Not to be confused with “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” the anthem was performed in the recent John Adams mini-series when it was sung by an actor and the audience in Adams’ presence in the theater scene. It sounds like a national anthem written by George Frederic Handel. A verse and the chorus are:

Hail Columbia, happy land!
Hail, ye heroes, heav’n-born band,
Who fought and bled in freedom’s cause,
Who fought and bled in freedom’s cause,
And when the storm of war was gone
Enjoy’d the peace your valor won.
Let independence be our boast,
Ever mindful what it cost;
Ever grateful for the prize,
Let its altar reach the skies.

Chorus
Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

A while back “The Star Spangled Banner” had a bad rap as being difficult to sing. Garrison Keillor thinks that this has more to do with the key it’s usually set in (Bb) than the range and advocates pitching it in G. (I can’t sing it that low. It’s just sad.) We really don’t hear much about the difficulty of the song any more and it is sung frequently these days, which is good. It is a stirring and memorable piece.

I think the rarely sung fourth verse of “The Star Spangled Banner” is appropriate here as we think about our country, its freedoms and the sacrifices of so many people over the years and at the present time to insure those freedoms.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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