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.


  • There are also 2 places where an "accidental" note is sung to the 5th of the 5th chord, which could be tricky for the non-musically inclined. Having noted that, I personally don't find the melody particularly challenging.

  • Another instance of the desire to go back in time and tweak one of the small things (you can't tweak the big things, because then the South wins the Civil War and Hitler decides to strike south for the Middle East Oil Fields and Robert Evans does too much coke and changes his mind about using Italians in the making of THE GODFATHER): Just head back to '31 and spread the word around the Hill: "Guys, listen–just…It's 'America The Beautiful.' Seriously, just stick with that one. Millions of sports fans will thank you for it, and you'll get to piss of untold numbers of atheists in the bargain with the 'God' references therein. Trust me. Also, kudos on repealing Prohibition, and, heads up–you might want to think about adopting a similar laissez-faire approach to reefer and smack and the 'secret ingredient' to Coke. Just sayin'."

  • Bb major is nothing… major. No harder for anyone to deal with than D maj. In fact, the ear is exceptional at dividing frequencies into nice mathematical ratios, so as long as you have a reference pitch for the tonic, it's all relative from there.

  • I did not understand any of what Bill said there. It's not often I find myself reading things that I am unable to comprehend, but music is definitely the way to go to find them.

  • 'O Canada' brings tears to my eyes every time. Seriously.
    Our anthem also brings tears to my eyes but that's because
    of the daily butchering of it.

    And, of course, I effing LOVE Canada. Who doesn't?

    Also, I married a wacky Canadian. She makes a mean meatloaf,
    let me tell you.

  • Star Spangled Banner may have its faults but it does what a National Anthem must do. Raises the passions of its people, especially its troops. If you were to go marching to your death in the defence of the country, it's not bad in that regard.

    A national anthem should clearly state our country is better than your country and we'll kick your arse to prove it, or state we'll gladly sacrifice our lives in its defence. Deutschland Über Alles springs to mind for the former, and O Canada the latter.

    The award for the most appalling, anaemic pap of a pathetic excuse for a national anthem is:

    Anyone ready to march forth w that echoing in your ears?

    "National Party Senator Sandy Macdonald said in 2001 that Advance Australia Fair is so boring that the nation risks singing itself to sleep, with boring music and words impossible to understand."

    Chosen through plebiscite poll during the "I'm ok, you're ok", "why can't we be friends" 70s so what can one expect.

    At least "Waltzing Matilda" is about sheep thief who'd rather die a free man on his terms.

    Eau and GlenH are going to hunt me down and feed me to the sharks right about now.

    @JD: The Kiwi is one that does as you suggest, and puts a brush up the atheists, "God Defend New Zealand". But they also have the Hakka. Giving them the best of both worlds.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Ditto me!
    My comment disappeared.
    And I wasn't even my usual rude feckin' self.
    Lengthy, as usual – but not obnoxious.

  • @CU: I can at least see that it exists. I've had others that have disappeared and prolly put me on an en (h)esss ayyyy! Watch list. I'm guessing its either my links or my reference to the WW2 German national anthem. That sounds like California Über Alles.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Ok, let me try this, without exceeding the "link limit."
    Too late!!!
    Oh, wait, the other one is a 'dlink rimit…' uhm, er, 'DRINK LIMIT!" – and no, 'occifer,' I only had twi martooni's! Why you do ass?

    Ok, had my coffee. I'm fine now.

    As I said in my earlier dear, departed, comment, I'd prefer Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."
    It's short, sweet, and to the point. No God, no wars.

    And I could stand "The Star Spangled Banner" (SSB) if singers or musicians just sang or played it quickly and in a straightforward manner, instead of seeing how many vocal or instrumental arpeggio's they could hit during it, how much "Ooomph!" they could add to it, or how much drama they can wring from it.

    Just sing or play the damn thing, sit down, STFU, and let the game or event begin.

    Btw – they started playing the SSB before sporting events during the World Series of 1918, at the tail-end of WWI.
    And, maybe it cursed the two teams in it, because after the Boston Red Sox beat the Chicago Cubs that year, the Red Sox didn't win another World Series until 2004, and the Cubs haven't won one since (the last time they won one was in 1908: I guess any team can have a bad century, or more) – and rarely appeared in any – and none, since the end of WWII, in 1945, when they again, lost. This time, to the Detroit Tigers.

    Until WWII, outside of town and national celebrations, the SSB was only played at major sporting events, like the World Series, or other things like championship boxing matches.
    It was during WWII that playing it started to become ubiquitous at large gatherings, and at the beginning of every damn baseball game, and, eventually, every damn sporting event.

    And so, here we are, the SSB is played at the beginning of almost everything.

    Also too – Note to Baseball:
    Enough with "God Bless America" during every 7th inning stretch (this started after 9/11).
    You start every damn pastoral game with blood and war, no need to "God-up" the greatesst secular game later on.
    We don't need to stretch our stupid lungs, just get up off our fat asses, and loosen up for the endless parade of relief pitchers, which will make the game take longer to finish, than the first 7 1/2 innings.
    But, that may be the subject of some NPF in the future, so I'm finished.

    Have a great weekend, one and all! :-)

  • One of Stephen Colbert's greatest moments came when he did a piece a few years ago on the conservative hissy fit over a Spanish-language version of SSB and suggested that we let Latinos have the third and fourth verses, the ones native-born Americans won't sing.

  • It's such a shit anthem. The words don't fit the tune. Where you sing "Whose broad stripes" or still worse, "The bombs bursting," the rhythm is so malapropos that the words have to be shoehorned in (in the case of "broad," even the word's meaning gets stepped on). Outside of American patriotic songs, this degree of metrical ineptitude is most easily found in the lyrics of Poison, Queensrÿche et al.

  • @Rick Massino,

    That's not a bad idea.

    Of course, the conservative hissy fit was made even more stupid by the fact that Bush had Jon Secada perform a Spanish-language SSB at his first inaugural ceremony. IOKIYAR.

  • Death Panel Truck says:

    "America The Beautiful" should be our national anthem. With the reference to "God" excised.

    Failing that, I would insist that every ballgame and NASCAR race begin with the playing of Jimi's "Star Spangled Banner" (the studio version as found on the Rainbow Bridge soundtrack, because it's shorter, and a much better version than Woodstock, IMHO.)

  • The most common mistake that I hear to adjust for the very wide range of pitches is that people change the key subconsciously when they start the line "And the rockets' red glare" when it is sung a capella. When they have to sing with a recording or an ensemble holding them to a key, the upper range or lower range is very often destroyed.

  • Putting aside for a moment the current political turmoil in Canada (and the snarky "our home ON native land" parodies that have been inspired by it…)

    The thing that I love about our national anthem is that it's in two languages, and most people who went to elementary school in a reasonably competent district grew up learning to sing it in both (the first 4 lines in English, the next 8 lines in French, the last 4 lines in English), even if they don't understand the French bits and are sounding it out phonetically. The fact that we care about at least paying homage in some way to the French part of our history, whatever newspaper commenters might have you believe, gives me illusory hope for the future of the country.

    Total derail: the Chinese national anthem is very rousing and revolutionary, and beings with "Arise, those of you who don't want to be slaves anymore", and ends with, rather graphically, "we will unite as one and face the gunfire of our enemies, advance!" Except the word for "Arise" is the same as the word for "get up", so my grandmother used to wake me up with the first line of the anthem, which amused little-me so much that she usually sang the rest of the anthem as well, and I would get up around the "advance" part. And then I started elementary school and realized what she had actually been singing to me the entire time, and was kind of horrified subsequently. (But hey I know the Chinese national anthem despite not having lived there since I was 8…)

  • I'd never heard about the Feliciano controversy until his performance this year, and I thought it was so nice I couldn't understand why anyone objected to it. As someone who watched about 150 baseball games this year, it was a welcome change from the usual quasi-operatic torture.

  • Fitzroy Glibherbert says:

    The tune is a problem for the average person–but it is precisely its difficulty that makes it useful for public spectacle. Mainly, though, the lyrics are good: it correctly characterizes the frequent warring and the willingness to sacrifice (for good or ill), and I like the poetic question at the end: Key was asking whether the flag was literally there; but the question it really asks (and is asking its singers/audience to contemplate) is whether that flag still represents the land of the free and the home of the brave. It's a question we should be asking ourselves (for good or ill).

    All that said, I think most people would agree that America the Beautiful would have been better, not only because it's shorter and a nicer tune, but also because of its combination of odes to natural beauty and brotherhood—God's grace notwithstanding.

  • I second the horrifying-ness of Lee Greenwood's song…in fact almost any country song that wraps itself in the flag.

  • I'm guessing that "Hail Columbia" predates the "Inky-Dinky Spider." The presence of that tune might be why the song has fallen out of favor

  • I'm guessing that "Hail Columbia" predates the "Inky-Dinky Spider." The presence of that tune might be why the song has fallen out of favor

  • It's a terrible song. Jingoistic and stupid. Most national anthems are stupid, as they smack of…nationalism.

    I fully support a movement to change the national anthem to "This Land is Your Land." Or Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Or Brittney Spears Hit Me Baby One More Time. Who cares.

    I somewhat hope that a diehard right-winger reads this, because I will have fulfilled his insane fantasy of what progressives sit around talking about. Ban the national anthem!

  • i've always liked how much more appropriate for showboating the US anthem is over the canadian anthem. an individual vocalist singing the star spangled banner always sounds more interesting than when singing o canada – there's so much more opportunity for flourish (tune in early to a hockey game and listen to the difference).

    on the flip side, o canada lends itself far better to mass singings – it sounds better the more people there are singing it. in canada, stadium crowds always end up singing along with the anthem, which never seems as common in the US (in my experience, anyway).

  • I vote to change it to Wang Dang Sweet Poontang. Either that or When the Levee Breaks.

    But yeah, O Canada is just a beautiful piece of music, where SSB sounds like what it is — a barroom chant.

  • Lee Greenwood should be fried in his own funnel cake oil and buried with a mini-flag through his heart. I would change our anthem to:
    We're proud and tough
    We play rough.
    Don't mess with us
    We'll put you in a truss.
    Play ball!

  • Saying anything bad about Lee Greenwood and this gung ho patriotism, the last refuge of scoundrels, and watch the indignation of saying anything negative about America. it is so sad to watch the dumbed down Americans respond in horror to criticism, period. like torture is good and rules are not to be respected, the whole Republican "Party over Americans" program of stealing from everyone and everything, also known as Newt Gringrich's "Contract On America". the same thing as the Communist Party of the USSR. and wind up bankrupting America just like the Communist Party did the USSR.

    But that's where we are. with Grifters like Lieberman, Reid, McConnell, Pelosi, Ryan, and the rest doing the bidding of the Puppets for the Wall St. Owners. Nothing is Priceless anymore.

    Money is our God, nowadays.

  • I am in no way jingoistic, patriotic, or nationalistic; American exceptionalism annoys me no end, etc etc etc.
    But I think we have a pretty darned good anthem. (And while I love and admire Canada, 'O Canada' seems pretty weak sauce to me).
    I was in Kenya many years ago as a youth, hiking in the rift valley with NOLS – a very international lot. One night around the campfire we swapped our respective anthems. I remember the Kenyans saying that they thought theirs was pretty lame, and the Canadians weren't really all that excited about 'O Canada'. When it came to us Americans, the majority were your typical patriots. But we stopped before we sang it – for one, no one could remember the whole thing – and explained the backstory ("so, we're at war trying to become independent from the British [The Kenyans could sympathize], and this guy is captured and sitting on a British warship watching it bomb our fort. . ."). Everyone else is already moved and agrees this is a pretty cool angle. By the time we got to singing it – haltingly, trying to remember all the lyrics – even I was moved and kinda proud.
    After, there was near-unanimous agreement that not only was SSB pretty damned cool, but it seemed like quite a bit of envy.
    So I don't know what planet you h8ers are on ;)

  • Andrew Laurence says:

    I love "O Canada," but every time I go to Canada, I seem to get the border guard who takes "We stand on guard for thee" a wee bit too seriously.

    Also, I think the US national anthem should be "Midnight Train to Georgia." :-)

  • Great call on Feliciano in 1968…I brought this up at a seminar on teaching immigration a few years ago and not one person (including the lead lecturer) knew about it…I didn't know he sang the anthem in the playoffs this year as I gave up on baseball (as a Red Sox fan) in July this year.

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