All Commentary
Wednesday, July 1, 1970

A Song for All Seasons


Mr. Linford, now free lancing, worked many years in various phases of the newspaper and publishing business.

0! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming….

Ring familiar? It should, for that is the opening of what is probably the most “played” song in America, and perhaps in all history. How about it? Can you fill in the rest of the words? The number of Americans who stumble trying to do so might surprise you.

American officialdom dillydallied for many years over the question of a national anthem. It was not until 1931 — some 155 years after the Declaration of Independence —that Congress put its official stamp of approval on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” President Herbert Hoover signed the measure into law on March 3, 1931.

Critics of Francis Scott Key’s classic — and there have been some over the years — say that Congress still acted hastily and unwisely.

They contend that further consid­eration might have resulted in the selection of a more appropriate song as the symbol of the nation’s heartbeat.

The tune’s wide vocal range makes it difficult to sing, they claim, and its belligerent yet ob­scure message is out of step with modern tastes and needs. The on­coming generation, we are jok­ingly told, finds the song so closely identified with football games and the like that it is regarded as some kind of a sports tune.

Defenders of the anthem agree with some of the shortcomings cited, but insist that it serves the nation adequately and well, and that its enormous prestige and world-wide familiarity preclude any serious thoughts of change. To them, junking “The Star-Spangled Banner” would be like destroying a vital part of the na­tion itself, and therefore is un­thinkable.

The silent majority we hear so much about these days hasn’t been heard from lately, but silence in this case can only signify at least a certain satisfaction with the status quo.

The fact is, Congress hesitated to act as long as it did simply because of doubts and uncertain­ties as to the best selection. Many efforts to force legislative action over the years came to naught. A whole series of bills on the subject were allowed to die in committee, with scarcely a hearing, until that august assemblage finally decided to act and gave the United States of America at long last an official national anthem.

Despite obvious reluctance in high places, there was little real room for doubt as to what the selection would be. When Congress finally acted, it was only recogniz­ing and confirming the obvious. For Francis Scott Key’s patriotic song had held the honor, in prac­tice and spirit if not in fact, for a half-century or more and had been a favorite of the people ever since 1814 when it was composed.

Making It Official

History strongly suggests that “The Star-Spangled Banner” had the inside track almost from the time it first took the young and shaky nation by storm during the War of 1812. Within a matter of days after Key was inspired to wax poetic about the successful defense of Fort McHenry against the British, the song was a popu­lar hit with the American public, and it was soon being played and sung all over the country.

The tune, which had been bor­rowed from a British ballad, was already well-known and popular, and the fiery lyrics inspired the hard-pressed patriots to new heights of national pride and dedi­cation.

“The Star-Spangled Banner’s” popularity never waned, even when time began to blur the image of its ardent message. It became and remained THE song for patriotic occasions, sometimes sharing the honor with other favorites but seemingly always holding its own.

The song moved importantly toward official status in the 1890′s when Army and Navy regulations were amended to require that it be used as the national anthem at appropriate functions. President Woodrow Wilson reaffirmed this requirement in 1916 as the nation strived for stature among world powers and inched toward involve­ment in World War I.

Thus, it was little more than a formality 15 years later when Congress and President Hoover made the selection official.

Other Candidates

Other popularly-acclaimed songs were available — several, in fact. But serious challengers to the su­premacy of “The Star-Spangled Banner” seemed to suffer handi­caps that worked against them.

The old favorite “America” (My country, ’tis of thee), for instance, has been widely heralded for its hymn-like melody and tranquil lyrics ever since it was written in 1832. But the fact that the tune was the same as that of the Brit­ish national anthem, “God Save the King,” tended to lessen its chances of becoming the official anthem of this country.

Should this have made a differ­ence? Perhaps not. But it did make a difference, especially to Americans of an earlier day who more than once felt the sting of hostile British barbs and power.

The melody of the song in ques­tion, incidentally, at one time or another has been copied and used by as many as 20 other nations, and historians are in doubt as to its exact origins. Samuel Francis Smith, who wrote the words to “America,” for example, first found the tune in an old German song­book, unaware of any British claims to it at the time.

Another early favorite—and our first national anthem-like song, in fact — was “Hail! Columbia,” writ­ten during the presidency of George Washington and adapted to the melody of the President’s March. Its lyrics call for national unity and peace with an underly­ing plea for nonintervention in European wars, a hot issue those days.

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

This song nearly matched “The Star-Spangled Banner” in popu­larity for many years. But, for one thing, later generations of Americans failed to identify them­selves with Columbia, which ri­valed America for a time as the name for the new nation, and the song gradually fell behind.

Much the same thing might be said of another favorite, “Colum­bia, the Gem of the Ocean” (Three cheers for the Red, White, and Blue), which was written in 1843, though it was more a snappy marching piece than a serious con­tender for anthem status.

The Civil War era brought forth a host of stirring songs and bal­lads whose popularity skyrocketed, and has lingered. But since they were identified in the public mind on a partisan basis with either Northern or Southern causes, they had strikes against them as na­tional anthem candidates.

Included in this category were the Southern favorites, “Dixie” and “Maryland, My Maryland,” and the Northern classics, “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and “Bat­tle Hymn of the Republic.”

The jazzy Dixie song was com­posed in 1858 by a Northern song­-and-dance man named “Jolly” Dan Emmett for a minstrel show as he yearned for mild southern winters during an especially cold spell of weather in New York. Dixie went on to become the war song of the Confederacy, and it bolstered Southern spirits as no other.

“Maryland, My Maryland,” a very moving hymn set to the music of the old German folk song, “O Tannenbaum,” was put together in 1861 by James Ryder Randall of Baltimore and spoke vividly for all of the South throughout the War.

“The Battle Cry of Freedom” (The Union forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah!) was composed by George Frederick Root of Chicago to rally support for the Union cause and to aid in army recruiting. So ef­fective were its stirring rhythmsand fiery lyrics that some histori­ans credit the song with having inspired the Union on to victory.

“Battle Hymn of the Republic,” of course, was the North’s leading patriotic song. Mrs. Julia Ward Howe of Boston wrote the words, which have continued to echo down through the years. They were set to the familiar melody of “John Brown’s Body.” With its partisan Civil War connotations having faded with the years, this power­ful hymn is high on any list of all-time favorites.

Another entry in the field that enjoys a huge following is “Amer­ica, the Beautiful” (0 beautiful for spacious skies), dating back to 1893. The magnificent view from the summit of Pike’s Peak in Col­orado inspired a vacationing New England school teacher named Katherine Lee Bates to compose the lyrics, which were set to the music of a well-known hymn, “Materna.”

A more recent challenger that rates more than passing mention is Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which Kate Smith and others advanced with patriotic fervor into the front ranks of popular music during World War II. Written by Berlin as a hymn for peace, its moving melody is easy to follow and its lyrics relate to universal human sentiments.

A national poll after the war listed “God Bless America” as our second most famous national song. Number one? “The Star-Spangled Banner”!

Would results today be any dif­ferent? Chances are, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is even more widely-known and appreciated. Ask the average American (most of us) and he will respond with something like: “Sure I like it! It’s the national anthem, isn’t it?”

It is that! And, in the words of flag historian Milo M. Quaife, “it is one of the most remarkable patriotic outbursts ever penned.” Somewhat like the American flag, our national anthem “has come to signify honor and love of country beyond price.”

The next time someone guffaws in your presence over “The Star-Spangled Banner,” suggest that he give the lyrics at least a quick once-over — for old times’ sake if for no other. It can be a reward­ing experience — like, for instance, these lines at the end of the fourth verse:

Then conquer we must, for 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.