Academic journal article American Studies

STAR-SPANGLED BANNER: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem

Academic journal article American Studies

STAR-SPANGLED BANNER: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem

Article excerpt

STAR-SPANGLED BANNER: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem. By Marc Ferris. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2014.

Starting in the early morning hours of Tuesday, September 13, 1814, British warships began bombarding Fort McHenry in Baltimore's harbor. Throughout the day and into the night, the British fired more than one thousand rockets at the fort. Around dawn on September 14, onlookers nervously awaited signs of life among the American defenders. To the relief of many-including the thirty-five-year-old attorney Francis Scott Key-the Americans hoisted a large, thirty-by-forty-two-foot flag on top of a ninetyfoot pole, to demonstrate their resilience. Five Americans were dead and twenty-four wounded, but their banner still waved. That same morning Key started jotting down a thirty-two-line poem in four verses on the back of a letter; it was printed the following week as "The Defence of Fort M'Henry" in several Baltimore newspapers, and widely reprinted thereafter. As he had done in 1805 with an earlier poem, Key set his words to the melody of "To Anacreon in Heaven," a popular English drinking song from 1775.

How Key's poem-matched with a difficult-to-sing tune-became the national anthem of the United States is the subject of this fascinating study, written by Marc Ferris, a journalist-historian with a passion for country music. The book's nine chapters proceed chronologically from eighteenth-century English anthems and Key's 1814 creation through botched renditions of the song in the early twenty-first century. Along the way, Ferris highlights the musical disputes that arose during the Civil War, the use of national songs to reconcile former belligerents in the postbellum period, the passage of a Congressional act in March 1931 to designate the Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem of the United States, and the anthem's ups and downs during World War II, the Cold War, U. …

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