Aside from when I’m at Genji, the most authentic karaoke bar in Houston, I don’t sing in public.
And when the Astros take the field at Minute Maid Park this season, I certainly won’t be singing the national anthem.
It’s not that I’m unpatriotic. Although I was born in the Bronx, N.Y., presumably a bit outside of those regions of the country Sarah Palin considers to be the “wonderful little pockets” of the “real America,” I consider myself decidedly pro-America.
I respect this country’s history and dedicated my undergraduate and graduate education to studying it. I make annual pilgrimages to historical sites and, to the chagrin of my wife, often stop at historical markers. I even carry a pocket Constitution.
And I revere the historical significance of Francis Scott Key’s 1814 ode to the “broad stripes and bright stars” of our flag.
So it’s not a lack of patriotism that will have me lip synching whenever I'm at the ballpark. Rather, I won’t sing the national anthem out loud because I fear my rendition will end up sounding like the version former University of Houston track star and Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis sang circa 1993.
With my vocal talents, I know better than to try to carry the tune of an 18th-century British drinking song.
Star Spangled History
Francis Scott Key was a Washington, D.C., attorney when the War of 1812, or the "second war for independence," broke out between the United States and Great Britain.
The war originated largely because the Brits didn’t get the memo after 1783 that we were a sovereign, independent nation not to be interfered with on the high seas. Likewise, the regularity with which the British impressed, or forcibly kidnapped U.S. citizens to serve on British ships, riled many Americans and led to a congressional declaration of war in June 1812.
After two years of fighting in the Great Lakes and in Canada, the British focused their forces on the Atlantic coast of the United States. By August 1814, things were not going well for the U.S. The British burned much of Washington, D.C., including the Capitol and the White House. If not for the efforts of first lady Dolley Madison, some of the most cherished possessions of the republic, including Gilbert Stuart’s famous full-length portrait of George Washington, would have gone up in smoke.
Just one month after torching Washington, the British set their sights on the city of Baltimore and the American fort that guarded its harbor. For 25 hours, the Brits shelled Fort McHenry.
Key had a front-row seat for the assault. Before the attack commenced, he negotiated the release of an American physician captured by the British. Yet the British kept Key on a truce ship for the duration of the attack. From a few miles away, Key could see the “rockets' red glare," as well as hear the “bombs bursting in air.” Throughout the cacophonous shelling, Key grew concerned that the British would take the fort. When he awoke on the morning of Sept. 14, however, Key was relieved that the fort was still standing and “our flag was still there.”
The defense of Baltimore was a watershed moment in the war, and just four months later the British signed the Treaty of Ghent.
Music and Lyrics
Key started writing the poem on a back of a letter immediately after the successful defense of Fort McHenry. He finished the lyrics back in Baltimore, and then set the song to the tune of a popular English ditty, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” You can listen to this 18th-century gem here.
Written in 1775, "To Anacreon in Heaven" was “originally the ‘constitutional song’ of the Anacreontic Society, a gentleman’s music club in London.” This social club revered the ancient Greek poet “noted for his praise of love and wine,” and the melody became a popular tune in the United States in the late 18th century. According to the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine site, “The tune appeared in American papers under various lyrics.” For instance, it was the music for the 1798 smash hit "Adams and Liberty," by Robert Treat Paine. Key actually set an earlier poem to the melody when he commemorated American victories over the Barbary pirates in 1806.
Even though Key was alleged to be tone deaf, his poem set to this popular tune, spread like wildfire across the country. According to the National Museum of American History’s exhibit on the "Star Spangled Banner", “by mid-October it had appeared in at least seventeen other papers in the cities up and down the East Coast.” Key gave "the flag a starring role in the one of the most celebrated victories of the war,” and thus he “established a new prominence for the flag as an expression of national identity, unity, and pride.”
What So Proudly We Hail’d
Despite the popularity of the Star Spangled Banner, Key’s song did not become our national anthem right away. It took on great significance during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Yet by 1889, it was only the official song the military used for flag raising ceremonies. It wasn’t until 1917 that “both the Army and the Navy designated the song the “national anthem” for ceremonial purposes.” Only in 1931 did the "Star Spangled Banner" become our national anthem.
This is a song I can't sing on key. Yet at the start of every Astros game I attend this year, I'll proudly hail Francis Scott Key and our anthem's history.