I posted this originally on my Blogspot blog on August 10, 2008. It actually fostered little discussion at first but eventually became incorporated into a BYU theater major’s final project (a play about America where God runs for president). I’m reposting this in the spirit of the 4th of July holiday.
I have never gotten our national anthem.
I learned about the Star-Spangled Banner along with reading; one of the primers I practiced reading on as a child around the age of eight was about Francis Scott Key and the background of how the Star-Spangled Banner was written. The story of Francis Scott Key and the origin of the Star-Spangled Banner goes a little like this.
It is the War of 1812. The British are kicking our butts. Francis Scott Key, a poet and somewhat of a diplomat, went on a mission to barter for the release of a popular doctor who had been arrested for supposedly aiding the capture of British soldiers. Key was successful in gaining his release, but because he had learned about plans to attack Baltimore, Maryland, he was held captive until after the attack. Key watched the battle apprehensively from the deck of a British ship during the bombardment, and could not tell if the flag of Fort Covington was still standing. At dawn, he saw with relief that it certainly flew proudly in the air; the British were repelled. In lieu of the events, he penned the words which would later become known as the Star-Spangled Banner and our national anthem.
The first verse is the introduction to the circumstances surrounding the event; certainly, they fit well to Francis Scott Key’s confusion and fear during the attack. The bombs were most definitely bursting in air, and while the rocket’s red glare illuminated the flag for now, he ends the verse by asking:
“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
The end of the verse is a question. Francis doesn’t know. Does the flag still stand? Is Baltimore still under American control, or has it succumbed to superior British naval and military might? He then goes on to answer his question in the second verse with a resounding: “‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!” The third verse then thumbs its nose at the British and the fourth verse in my opinion is the most fitting verse for a national anthem, and is also where we gain the phrase “In God we trust” (or more accurately, “In God is our trust,” as Francis originally pens it).
This has always bothered me. Every time we sing the national anthem at a ball game, NASCAR race, or occasional national event, we only sing the first verse. And thus, we end every national anthem as a question, as if we are collectively questioning whether America still exists. Does that star-spangled banner yet wave? Is it still there?
This, of course, can be incredibly brilliant! What more fitting of an anthem that has us, as singers, pause in a moment of reflection and contemplation on the state of our States. Do the American ideals of justice, freedom, equality and innovation still stand? Is our metaphorical flag still waving proudly over our land? Is this still the land of the free and the home of the brave? Is the American Dream still alive, or broken and just another scam? Does the great American Experiment still exist and is it still working? Is democracy still alive? Such heavy and deep questions! Imagine if every American took the time every ballgame to stop and think of where their beloved country is headed, to ponder his contribution to American society and whether or not the ideals and freedoms and dreams he stands for still flies over this country’s soil? How deliciously existential!
But the sad part is, I don’t think that’s the purpose. I really think that Americans are just too lazy to sing the rest of the song to get the real message and thus stop after the first verse. We continue to sing it, never thinking about what our national anthem actually means, not even really realizing that our national anthem as we know it (because honestly, who has the second to fourth verses memorized?) continually questions whether our country even exists, all because of sheer laziness and willful ignorance – we never take the time to pause and contemplate what we are even singing about, what we even supposedly sing and think about America.
Again, another delicious metaphor.