Tags: Clague | national | anthem | Key

National Anthem: Hit or Myth?

By    |   Tuesday, 09 Sep 2014 07:57 AM

Because of the prevalence of public sporting events, summer, even in its waning days, is a good time to reflect on the National Anthem. The Library of Congress did just that, by convening a panel of experts to discuss "Myths Surrounding the Star-Spangled Banner," and C-SPAN broadcast the event as part of its American History series.

Almost every American has vivid memories of particular renditions of the National Anthem. This writer was listening live to the broadcast of the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston on May 25, 1965, from Lewiston, Maine, when Robert Goulet, a Canadian who was one of the most popular entertainers of the time, singing the anthem for the first time in public, famously botched the opening.

A stirring performance is certain whenever Lauren Hart, daughter of the late Philadelphia Flyers announcer Gene Hart, sings the anthem, and some Flyers fans think the real National Anthem is God Bless America, with video of Kate Smith and live singing by Lauren Hart. Another memorable performance was that of Canadian Burton Cummings of both anthems before a Los Angeles Kings game. However, for some listeners the key criterion is that the anthem be sung as quickly and with as little fuss as possible. In no case should the anthem exceed 90 seconds.

James Wintle, reference specialist in the Music Division of the Library of Congress, led the discussion in front of a packed room. The first speaker was Mark Clague, a professor of musicology at the University of Michigan, who promised that there would be interesting information beneath the surface of the little song most people know, beginning with myths that are being dispelled in connection with the 200th anniversary of what later became the National Anthem.

The first myth, perpetrated by a famous but inaccurate painting of the scene near Baltimore's Fort McHenry, is that Francis Scott Key, ironically an opponent of the War of 1812, was held prisoner on a British ship. In fact, he spent three days on an American ship, not deprived, but well provisioned for a diplomatic mission, tethered to a British ship. During the time he was stuck on the ship with nothing to do, Key had time to write the lyrics to the anthem.

A second myth identified by Clague was that Key wrote a poem instead of a song. The fact is that he wrote words to one of the common songs of the day "When the Warrior Returns," which was performed later as part of the program. (This seems like a relatively insignificant distinction.) The song was at first labeled "In Defence (sic) of Fort McHenry" when it was published after the battle, with haste and urgency because newspapers were unavailable for a few days.

Third, the panel disposed of the myth that the melody is based on an old drinking song. The fact that the song was sung at a "tavern" didn't truly associate it with drinking, because the tavern was, in fact, a highbrow performance space on the Strand in London. They also addressed the issue of the anthem being hard to sing. Clague said this was intentional, because it was meant for amateur singers to provide a vehicle to show off the range of the singers.

Fourth, Clague refuted the myth that the first singing of the anthem at a sporting event was the 1918 World Series. Actually it occurred in Brooklyn in 1862 at the first baseball game that was played on a fenced field and for which admission was charged.

Susan Key, executive director of the Star Spangled Music Foundation, added commentary.

(Archived video can be found here. Note that this program begins at about the 6 min. mark.)

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Because of the prevalence of public sporting events, summer, even in its waning days, is a good time to reflect on the National Anthem. The Library of Congress did just that, by convening a panel of experts to discuss "Myths Surrounding the Star-Spangled Banner."
Clague, national, anthem, Key
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2014-57-09
Tuesday, 09 Sep 2014 07:57 AM
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