Now that hockey season is upon us I am once again reminded that America's national anthem may hold its own in a vacuum but is badly outclassed by "O, Canada." As an American I want to do that thing Americans do and insist that Ours is the Best Thing out of all things; as a person who thinks about things and values honesty, I cannot. Nonetheless this offers an excellent opportunity to share some random, and in some cases not widely known, facts about our national anthem:
1. We are taught that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner, which is only partially true. He actually wrote a poem in 1814 with the snappy title of, "The Defence of Fort McHenry." The music to which the poem was set was written by John Stafford Smith in 1780 as the theme song of a London gentlemen's club (which did not yet mean "titty bar" at the time) called the Anacreon Society. The tune was called "To Anacreon in Heaven" and its lyrics were about figures from Greek mythology.
2. The poem actually has four stanzas, of which the song in its present form includes only the first one. Each stanza ends identically with "…home of the brave!" The unfamiliar second, third, and fourth stanzas contain some real clunkers for lyrics, such as "Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land. Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!" It's a real shame we don't get to sing that one.
3. The song did not become the National Anthem until…1931. Prior to that it was often played at military, political, and civic events but it coexisted with other songs that served as de facto anthems. The most popular were the now almost entirely forgotten "Hail, Columbia" and "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" (which is, of course, merely "God Save the Queen" with different lyrics). After the Civil War, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" became (and remains) quite popular as well.
4. The song is very difficult to sing, which a national anthem should not be. Its key (B-flat major) and 1.5-octave range leave the average citizen of no particular choral skill unable to sing it. This is also why you can spend an entire day on YouTube watching videos of singers butchering the high notes. Accordingly, one man is leading a crusade to have the song performed in the key of G-Major, which would allow those of us with pedestrian vocal cords to sing it without scaring animals.
He seems a little weird, yes. The point about other nations' anthems being easier to sing is not without merit, though.
5. People often recall the instrumental Jimi Hendrix/Woodstock version of the song as a source of great controversy, but a folk version performed by Jose Feliciano in Detroit at the 1968 World Series was actually much more controversial at the time. Feliciano's career was seriously damaged in the U.S. by the performance, even after players (and legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell) defended him. Ironically, he was invited back in 2012 to perform the same version of the song during the National League playoffs.
And now you're ready to impress no one in particular the next time you're at the ballgame and you hear those opening bars.