Friday, February 11, 2011

An explanation of the lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Have you ever had the experience of growing up with a song, having it become part of your sub-conscious, and not understanding or even thinking about what the lyrics mean until you are much older? 
I think that's how a lot of people experience "The Star-Spangled Banner".  How many people still know what a "rampart" is? 
There's been a lot of buzz about the song ever since Christina Aguilera butchered it during Super Bowl Disaster Week in Arlington. 
As a public service, I would like to offer an explanation of the lyrics to our national anthem. 

The song was written by amateur poet Francis Scott Key.  He was held captive on a British warship during the War of 1812, and had a front row seat for the bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry.  As humorist Richard Armour once explained:

In an attempt to take Baltimore, the British attacked Fort McHenry, which protected the harbor. Bombs were soon bursting in air, rockets were glaring, and all in all it was a moment of great historical interest. During the bombardment, a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner", and when, by the dawn's early light, the British heard it sung, they fled in terror. 

The thing requires a vocal reach of an octave and a half.  As many a vocalist will tell you, if you start off in too high of a first note, you're going to be in big, big trouble when you get to The Land Of The Free. 

That's all the preliminaries you need.  Here are they lyrics. 

O! say can you see by the dawn's early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,

It's morning.  The only light you have to see by is the dawn's, and the dawn's light is early.  Pointing out that the dawn's light is early seems redundant, but it was necessary for the meter and the rhyme scheme. 
We're looking for something that we saw last night, something that we were so proud of that we hailed it, even though it was dark (twilight). 
So an evening has passed.  Something was there last night, and we're wondering if it is still there the next morning. 

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

The thing we're looking for had stars and stripes, and it was capable of "streaming gallantly".  Do you know what the thing was?  Do you?  Give up?  Ok, the thing with stars and stripes, capable of streaming gallantly, the thing that was there the night before but could not be seen clearly the next morning, it was our flag !!

All through the perilous (dangerous) fight (for Fort McHenry), Francis Scott Key watched the flag from the other side of the ramparts (a type of defensive wall).  Got it?  The flag is flying on one side of the rampart, and you're on the other side in a boat with Francis Scott Key every time you sing this song.  You're taking part in an 1812 battle reenactment. 

Fans of the Dallas Stars hockey team put particular emphasis on the word "Stars" when singing the anthem. 

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;

Remember, it is still nighttime but the bloody British are still bombing the daylights out of Fort McHenry.  What are they using?  Rockets.  Bombs. 
What do the rockets and bombs produce?  Glare.  Bursts. 
Why are the glare and the bursts important?  The rocket's red glare and the bombs bursting in air do nothing but provide enough light to prove to everyone on the ship that the U.S. flag is still flying over Fort McHenry. 
This couplet is a little jab at the declining effectiveness of British Sea Power, proven true later at Dunkirk and the overkill in the Falkland Islands. 

Fans of the Houston Rockets basketball team put particular emphasis on the word "Rockets" when singing these lines.  Fans of the Cincinatti Reds baseball team put particular emphasis on the word "Red" when singing these lines.  The remaining fans of the Dallas Cowboys football team put particular emphasis on the word "Bombs" when singing these lines, because that's what their team has done ever since coach Jimmy Johnson abandoned Jerry Jones. 

O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The last two lines are less complicated.  The poet is simply asking if our flag with stars all over it is still waving over his country. 
And every time we sing the song, that's where we end it.  We never answer the question.  Francis Scott Key is stuck on the boat in Baltimore harbor, with nothing to eat but truly godawful British food, wondering if the flag is still flying. 

Look at the first verse of Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God".  If you just sing the first verse, and nothing else, it's like you're singing a song about the power of Satan. 
Singing the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner without singing the rest is like singing the Beverly Hillbillies song, but stopping before you get to the part where Ol' Jed's a millionaire. 

So why don't we ever sing the other verses? 
Give me time.  I'll get there. 
Here's the second verse, the one that ends the suspense. 

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,

Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,

I'm not sure if this verse is referring to the American army reposing or the British army reposing (haughtily).  I don't think it matters.  The important thing is that it's still misty and things are only "dimly seen". 

What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

Now we're getting somewhere.  Something is blowing fitfully in the breeze on the "towering steep" hill.  Half concealed, half revealed....

Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:

we're getting ready for the big reveal here....what is it....what is it....???

'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I think I'm as patriotic as the next person, but I'm glad I got that over with.

So why don't we ever sing the rest? 
Because the third verse is kind of embarrassing, especially in light of the "land of the free" business. 

In the War of 1812, the British augmented their army with divisions of mercenaries and freed slaves.  These slaves were promised an opportunity to shoot their former owners if they would help out the redcoats. 
Heck, that's a bargain I would have probably taken. 
Now, look at the third verse in that light: 

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.

The British army stunk up the place with their foul footsteps, but we used their blood to wash the place out. Kinda militaristic and barbaric, but we've all felt that way before, haven't we? 
Now for the money quote:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:

Yeah, if you try to create an army with hirelings (mercenaries) and slaves (ours), then you're going to get what you paid for.  But by contemporary standards, bragging about a military victory over an army of freed slaves makes the closing couplet into a freakin' joke:

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.


Let's move on again.  The fourth verse has created all sorts of mischief.  The sentiments have been inappropriately placed in the mouths of our Founding Fathers, created lawsuits about The Ten Commandments in our courtrooms, and have even shown up on our currency.  As far as I can tell, this is where one of our American slogans makes its first appearance:

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved home and the war's desolation.

As long as the freemen are (ahem) white. 

Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!

That would be a strong Constitution, giving power to the people and acknowledging that we are governed by our own consent.  Our government works for us, not vice-versa.  If higher Powers were involved, it was in pounding that basic concept into some of our heads. 

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

I don't have time to deconstruct that one.  Gotta be at work in thirty minutes.  Let's just say that we've had a long, long run of Presidents who could find a "just cause" for war by looking into a kindergarten dispute about nappy time.   

And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."

It wasn't our motto until Francis Scott Key said that it was.  End of story.  Why couldn't the boys at Fort McHenry just sink his damn boat? 

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave
Done.  Complete.  Explained.  Hope this has helped. 


Nick Rowe said...

Very good fisking of the verses.

As long as you're on the subject of the War of 1812 and just causes, you ought to consider the toast of Stephen Decatur:

"Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!"

I found that particularly fitting vis a vis our reaction to the "situation" in Egypt.

But I also read a lot about the events leading up to the War of 1812:

- the Quasi-War
- the First and Second Barbary War
- the Chesapeake Affair
- the Little Belt Affair
- the Seminole Wars
- Impressment
- Embargoes
- Massachusetts opposition to the War of 1812

Before you are too hard on the hypocritical Founders with respect to slavery, bear a few things in mind.

Many of the Founders wished to abolish slavery in the Constitution. The irony and hypocrisy was not lost on them, and they weren't shy about saying it. The compromises in the Constitution regarding slavery placed the short-term need to form a Union ahead of a contentious debate with no resolution. The alternative was two countries, one without slavery and one with.

In 1807, Congress passed a law and Jefferson signed banning the importation of slaves to begin on 1 January 1808, the very first day permitted under the Constitution. Some have argued that this only made existing slaves more valuable and the South already had sufficient slaves to breed to meet their needs, but I give our Founders the benefit of the doubt. If for no other reason, a slaver would vote against this to maintain his right to hold slaves on principle.

After the law passed, US Naval forces commenced to patrolling the African coast and seizing slave ships. Great Britain was already doing the same. There's a good scene in the movie "Amistad" of a British vessel destroying a slave-trader's keep.

The freed slaves fighting on the side of the British had just cause for a fight, but we had just cause for defense. And why would the British make their freedom CONDITIONAL on fighting?

And there's no reason we need to be polite to someone firing weapons at us, even if they seem to have good reason for doing so.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Mark Twain had a good time with the Stephen Decatur line. He said that "my country, right or wrong" was like saying "my mother, drunk or sober".
You gotta love it.

NickM said...

I know little of the war of 1812 - not having been around at the time - but I received a small history lesson touring the US Capitol in DC.

"Any Brits here?"

[hand dutifully goes up]

Apparently our lads burnt the original to the ground using the Library of Congress as kindling.

And they complain about the modern day epidemic of hooliganism on our streets!

Water under the bridge I guess.

Nick Rowe said...

NickM, we are eternally grateful you defeated us at the Battle of Quebec.

We also wouldn't mind if you came back to DC and finished the job.

Anonymous said...

This helped so much! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Star spangled banner discussion
the foe's haughty host

Haughty means:
disdainfully proud; snobbish; scornfully arrogant; supercilious:
haughty aristocrats; a haughty salesclerk.

Today we would use snob :arrogant, disdainful, snob. Like

the British aristocracy behaved.

Host in those days means: throng, swarm, gathering, horde, crowd,

multitude, mass, army

So the "haughty host" is the arrogant horde (army is too respectful)

The foe is the enemy.

dread means : terrible, formidable, dire, dreadful, frightful,
horrible,dire, appalling, frightful, ghastly, grisly, gruesome, hideous
Believe you me, the British army had conquered the entire world at that time, not by being nice. You were fighting the British Empire.

So the translation is "the enemy's arrogant horde is stalking us in silence to unleash horrible war"

So "Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes" is not a
statement to be taken lightly. It describes men in trenches facing death and yes, worse, from an enemy which has socially insulted, oppressed and treated them as inferiors.

That single phrase makes the Star Spangled Banner a symbol for freedom from oppression for every person in the world, even if they hate the flag.

Not a phrase to be dismissed.

Most humbly, Stephen, Montreal Canada