Isherwood: The Star Spangled Banner
By Justin Isherwood
Was September 14th about 6 a.m., 1814 and a scene that a lawyer/poet named Francis Scott Key would capture in a rather long poem titled “the Defense of Fort McHenry.” The poem later applied to the tune of a popular drinking song. The song in turn original to a Gentleman’s Club in London known as the Anacreon. Appropriately enough the lyric is called “To Anacreon on Heaven.” Anacreon being one of the many serviceable Greek gods fit to the task of wine, women and song, if not necessarily in that order. It is very probable this song regularly filled the throats of our Founding Fathers.
It is possible our national anthem accurately reports the facts of that September morning on the Baltimore roads, from where 19 British gunships had pummeled Fort McHenry the preceding 24 hours using 8 and 10 inch mortars. What they called bombers. For good measure adding Congreve rockets good for about a thousand yards, whose rocket tubes were made of malleable iron designed to sky-burst and shower the ground with high velocity shrapnel. These missiles launched from a dedicated rocket ship creating the themed image of what was to become the Star Spangled Banner.
Key was a “guest” visitor, aboard the HMS Tounant, where as a truce envoy he was detained during the attack on McHenry to prevent his spreading the intelligence of the British tactics. On that September morning the Fort raised the garrison flag, a standard morning ritual to replace the smaller storm flag. The garrison flag being the quite fabulous 30 x 42 monster that Key may have seen from the deck of the Tounant that morning from a distance of 8 miles. Perhaps that moment was less seen than it was felt. Poets are prone to this even if lawyers are not. Which of these Francis Scott Key was on this September morn we shall ever after guess. Either way the scene is inscribed on our hearts, that the flag was still there.
Fact is the Star Spangled Banner of Fort McHenry is the second version of the Banner song. The first was Key’s poem “When the Warrior Returns” about the Barbary War 1801-1805, a war at President Jefferson’s edict, involving a dozen Marines and a couple hundred mercenaries to over-throw the caliph of Libya and its piratical tendency, to ransom sailors and cargo. This poem also set to the tune of Anacreon in Heaven. The lyric however did not catch on, if did its line about a Star Spangled flag and “the shores of Tripoli.” (which by the way the Marines never got to, nor were caliph and his pirates disposed, if the line survives to a tune by Offenbach, the Marine Hymn combines the themes of the Barbary and the Mexican War).
That the Star Spangled Banner won out as the nation’s anthem over Hail Columbia, over Yankee Doodle, over Home on the Range, over America the Beautiful among others to include Arlo Guthrie’s version of the City of New Orleans … is curious. At 19, count ‘em, 19 semitones the Star Spangled Banner is a song that can wound the throat of a good singer who happens to open up on the Banner on an uncautious note. This song is, as designed, for the well-inebriated throat who doesn’t give a rat’s patooey about the key, Francis Scott or otherwise.
As for that September morning, 1814, the land advance on Fort McHenry had been repulsed, where on this spit of land the British felt their vulnerability and withdrew. As for the 19 ship British fleet, they had pounded the fort to little effect and damnable rebels were yet flying their rag in their good sovereign’s face, on this morning even bigger and braver than it was before the battle began. We know now it was in fact a bigger braver flag, that Fort commander Armistead had paid a local flag maker $405.90 to make. The British weighed anchor that morning and departed, this time for an invasion attempt at New Orleans, only later to run into another lyricist named John Horton, if time removed, who commemorated that battle, that has yet to be advanced as a possible national anthem.
Perhaps it is that the Star Spangled Banner is a difficult sing that so endears this tune. Because this America thing is also difficult, to balance personal freedoms against public efficiency and safety. Democracies are not intrinsically designed to be efficient, their one gain is that when the citizen is truly involved to the pursuit of the goal, that goal becomes the more manifest, and by this very American principle, the more productive.
That monster of a flag was run up Fort McHenry’s pole on that foggy, gunsmoke morning, to rise over the calm of Baltimore Harbor, its colors lifted by the offshore breeze, as the Brits pulled anchor and slipped out on the Chesapeake Roads. The Brits to that juncture had been on a roll, having overrun Washington D.C. the month previous, gleefully burned the Presidential mansion, looted the city, ransacked the countryside. But the damn snot-nosed rabble wouldn’t take the hint for an orderly return to His Majesty’s protection. Them and their damn flag, that Star Spangled Banner that has been sung off-key ever since.
September 14th is not a national holiday, if mayhaps it ought be.