Irving, Key, and the National Anthem

In last Friday’s Washington Post, columnist Michael Kinsley grumbled a bit about “The Star-Spangled Banner,” deriding it not only for being unsingable, but too full of warfare and unwarranted jingoism:

The melody is lifted from an old English drinking song. The lyrics are all about bombs and war and bloodshed — and not in a good way. By the penultimate verse, the song has turned really nasty: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” In the first verse — the one we generally sing — there is only one reference to any value commonly associated with America: “land of the free.” By contrast, “home of the brave” is empty bravado. There is nothing in the American myth (let alone reality) to suggest that we are braver than anyone else.

The entire piece is right here.

Apart from stridently disagreeing with his last sentence, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for “The Star-Spangled Banner” myself.  For one thing, I share a birthday with its lyricist, Francis Scott Key, one of only two really cool people — Herman Melville being the other — with whom I share a birthday.  When I was about six or seven years old, my Mom ordered for my brother and me one of those “Read About Me” books — where your parents would send information about you to a sort of print-on-demand operation, which would then incorporate all the information about you into an otherwise generic story — and when it got to the page where the narrator discussed famous people with whom you share a birthday, I was stuck with Francis Scott Key.  My brother, meanwhile, got Groucho Marx, a tidbit I was always somewhat jealous of.

Anyway, that’s one of the reasons — although a silly one — that I’ve always admired Baltimore’s unlucky lawyer, caught behind the lines when the shelling started at Fort McHenry.  He may have written a song few people can sing, but at least he had the good taste to be born on August 1.

To my later surprise and delight, however,  I learned there’s also a Washington Irving connection to Key’s poem.  In 1814, Irving was two years into his term as editor of Analectic Magazine. It was a job he was growing increasingly weary of — he particularly hated being a literary critic — but despite his lack of confidence in his abilities, Irving had remarkably good taste when it came to finding new work to publish in his magazine.  And in the December 1814 issue, only three short months after the bombardment of Fort McHenry,  Irving reprinted Key’s lyrics — a four-stanza poem he had titled “Defense of Fort McHenry” — in their entirety.

Irving was not only delighted with Key’s lyrics, he thought they were a fine example of one of his own pet causes: Americans writing their own patriotic poetry, rather than merely rewriting or adapting British poems, as had been the habit.  While Key set his poem to the tune of a popular British drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven,” the lyrics themselves were new and uniquely American. And as Irving presciently noted in his introduction to Key’s lyrics, “we think that their merit entitles them to preservation in some more permanent form than the columns of a daily paper.”

How right he was.  Key’s lyrics — and the drinking tune to which they were set — officially became our National Anthem in 1931.  Hard to sing?  Sure — but listen how glorious it can sound when done right.  Here’s Whitney Houston kicking off the 1991 Super Bowl, at the height of the Persian Gulf War:

Have a good weekend!

4 responses to “Irving, Key, and the National Anthem

  1. It goes to show what a good subject you chose for your biography. You really do seem to find Irving in the most unexpected places, and as this example demonstrates, in ways that deeply touch the American experience.

    By the way, not only Groucho Marx, but also Gandhi and Charlie Brown.

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  2. That Kinsley column isn’t fit to print. It’s totally dialed in.

    He isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said, but even worse, he’s perpetuating tired tropes. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people complain that the national anthem is “too hard to sing,” yet somehow people keep singing along, don’t they? And how does this “notorious unsingability” match up with the “English drinking song” aspect? Are drunken Englishmen somehow able to sing what Americans can’t?

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  3. I don’t know anything about the relative difficulty in singing any song so I can’t comment on that.

    I do, however, take offense to anyone who knocks down Francis Scott Key’s words (I don’t think he wrote the music). That poem is fantastic and, despite is obvious connection to warfare, has never lost its purpose for patriotic inspiration. What’s more, unlike other patriotic ditties or slogans or pledges, this one avoids and religious connotations (unless there are some in the stanzas I don’t know). Finally, I should point out that if it weren’t for this tune, I doubt most children outside Baltimore would learn a darn thing about the War of 1812!

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  4. You should send this to the Washington Post!!!!

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