Which Country’s National Anthem Ends by Questioning Its Citizens’ Bravery and Freedom?

(p. 9) Mark Clague knows everything about “The Star-Spangled Banner,” . . . .

. . .

The lyrics were composed by the lawyer, politician and amateur poet Francis Scott Key while held prisoner by the British in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812.

. . .

Clague even creates a detailed military map of the engagement to demonstrate how “perilous” that fight really was. The first verse, the only one now sung, ends, as every child knows, with a question:

“Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”

In the complete version, Key details his relief at finally seeing the flag, and rejoices in the promise of future victories. But those three verses are rarely sung, and leaving the question unanswered might be the secret to the song’s hold on the American public. It is not an anthem that, like “La Marseillaise,” calls for our enemy’s “impure blood to water our fields.” Rather, it’s a song for a country that is still in the fight, for its existence and its ideals, and it offers an invitation to any and all — the “you” of the first line — . . .

. . .

. . ., Clague has no patience for anyone who demands . . . reverence from others, . . . . But he reveres the anthem itself, and he makes the strongest case for the song in his detailed analysis of what he calls its most successful modern rendition, Whitney Houston’s performance at the 1991 Super Bowl.

Houston’s version, though, is transformed by artistry and personality and musical genius. She has changed the time signature to 4/4, and imbues the melody with the ornamentation of jazz, blues and, most important, gospel. By the time she gets that highest “FREEEE” she not only reaches but goes above it, expressing ownership of the word and the gesture. While the lyrics may remain as written, the meaning of a crucial word in the first line — “you” — has been wrenched from past to present to be addressed, at last, to all of us.

So: Does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and home of the brave? Not yet, perhaps. But listening to a descendant of the enslaved claiming the song of a slaver, you want to believe it someday might.

For the full review, see:

Peter Sagal. “High Notes.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, July 3, 2022): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated June 22, 2022, and has the title “Our Flag Was Still There.”)

The book under review is:

Clague, Mark. O Say Can You Hear?: A Cultural Biography of “the Star-Spangled Banner”. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2022.

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