Hit Counter

Visitor Number
View My Stats

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The National Anthem - Why Do We Sing It As We Do?

Trout and Hoover were citizens of the United States of America, a country which was called America for short. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously. [Text of Star-Spangled Banner omitted for space purposes] There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.
- Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

The fact is, we all know our national anthem, but does anyone actually know what it means? Here's some history for you, courtesy of HomeOfHeros.com  (and my brain).

On the morning of September 14, 1814, Baltimore lawyer Francis Scott Key was imprisoned on a British Warship in the Harbor. All night, the battle raged outside him, and as the bombs crashed and the rockets gave off their red glare, Key could see the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. However, by the "dawn's early light" the bombing had stopped and all fell silent. Key could not see the Fort, so he did not know if the British had captured it or surrendered.

But, if they had captured it, America would likely be finished as a nation. Had they surrendered and the USA held the fort, it would continue on as a great nation. With this, Key wrote the first verse

O - 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, through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

Key asks the reader of his poem (which later became the national anthem when set to the English Drinking tune "To Anacreon in Heaven") whether he can still see the Stars and Stripes ("What so proudly we hailed") over the Fort.

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there;

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

This concludes the first  verse, the one that is commonly sung at ballgames, Super Bowls, and everything else. Key still has not stated whether the flag was still there or not. Now let's look at the second (lesser known) verse.

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes;
What is that in the breeze, o'er the towering steep
As it fitfully blows, half conceals half discloses?

Midway through the second verse, the sun begins to rise and Key can dimly see the shore of the Fort ("on the shore, dimly seen"). At the fort, the Americans ("the foe's haughty host") sit in silence, not letting Key know if they still held the fort. All of a sudden, he sees a flag blowing in the breeze. Is it the Stars and Stripes, or the Union Jack?

Now it catches the gleam, of the morning's first beam
In full glory reflected now shins on the stream:
'Tis the Star-Spangled Banner, O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!

So finally, midway through the second verse, which almost no Americans know, we finally find out that our flag is, in fact still there. So the question is, why do we just sing the verse asking whether our flag is there, instead of pointing out that yes, it is there. Wouldn't that be more patriotic? And there are two more verses in the anthem, which are again largely unknown. Occasionally, formal military occasions will add on the fourth verse due to its opening lines "O, thus be it ever, when free men shall stand / between their loved homes and the war's desolation". However, we never sing the second.

Why not? Are we lazy? Australians sing two verses of what was originally a four-verse anthem (with the current second verse being the third of the original). So why can't we do the same? Perhaps because it would make baseball pregames twice as long? But seriously, it makes a lot more sense to add on the second if we want to retain the original meaning of the song. By simply singing the first, it loses the meaning.