Simply Flawless

With the death of Whitney Houston most will recall her singing of the song “I Will Always Love You” from the movie The Bodyguard. For me I will always remember her passionate singing of the Star Spangled Banner before Super Bowl Twenty Five.

Just ten days prior to the Super Bowl a coalition force made up of thirty four nations began to wage a war code named Operation Desert Storm against Iraq who had invaded their neighbor Kuwait.

The video below is truly a show of patriotism at it’s finest with Ms Houston’s stirring version of the song making her the only artist to turn the National Anthem into a hit single when it reached number 20 on the Billboard Top 100. The single was also reissued shortly after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center when the song hit number 6 on the charts.

In Defense Of Patriotism

Samuel Johnson famously observed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” and in recent years it has been increasingly common for some people to decry patriotism as mindless, antiquated, and a roadblock to progress toward the accomplishment of a “one world” community. As we come to the close of the Independence Day weekend, and the flags and bunting are stowed away, I want to present a brief defense of patriotism — which I consider to be a salutary, and positive, feeling.

I think some of the disdain for patriotism stems from the fact that it is an emotion that arises from below the level of rational thought — an informed emotion, perhaps, but an emotion nevertheless. Patriotic symbols are uniquely powerful devices. The fluttering Stars and Stripes, the bald eagle, John Phillips Souza marches, and other iconic objects and sounds are capable of stirring deep feelings in ways that cut across religious, racial, ethnic, and class lines. The gut-level impact of such potent imagery makes it possible for politicians to gin up, and then exploit, overzealous patriotism.

The fact that patriotism can be exploited, however, should not detract from its many positive attributes. In a diverse land of immigrants like the United States, patriotism is one of the strong, common threads that bind our people together. Our backgrounds may be different, but we can be united in our love of our country, its history, and its core values. One of the reasons most Americans are patriotic is that they believe, correctly, that we have much to be patriotic about. Our pride in our country is not derived from conquest, but from the abstract concepts of freedom, and democracy, and equality that America has helped to spread and promote throughout the world. In America, therefore, patriotism also has an aspirational component. Patriotic citizens are more likely to work to make America even better than it is, by volunteering to serve their country in some capacity, by voting, by being active in their communities, or in countless other ways. When times are tough, patriotism can lead people to engage in collective sacrifice and mutual support.

Any emotion that can cause self-absorbed, and often isolated, modern Americans to lay aside, however briefly, their focus on themselves and instead to view themselves are part of the greater American community — where we are not Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals, or southerners or yankees — is a good thing. The Fourth of July is an important holiday precisely because it is a patriotic holiday, and it is essential that, every so often, Americans stand in a crowd, see the flag, listen to The Star-Spangled Banner and Stars and Stripes Forever, and together experience the lump in the throat and surge of proud patriotic feeling.

The Star-Spangled Banner

The broad strokes of the story of the penning of the poem that became The Star-Spangled Banner are familiar to most Americans. We know that it happened during the War of 1812, and was motivated by British shelling of Fort McHenry in Baltimore’s harbor.

Fort McHenry

Fort McHenry

The poem’s author, Francis Scott Key, was a lawyer living in Washington D.C. When the British captured Washington, D.C., they took a local physician, Dr. William Beanes, as prisoner. Beanes was being held aboard a British ship outside Baltimore. Key, who served as district attorney for the District of Columbia, went to the British to try to secure Beanes’ release. He was successful in negotiating the release, but because the British were preparing to attack Baltimore they detained Key while the attack occurred. (Wars were certainly civilized in that era!)

Key therefore anxiously watched the attack on Fort McHenry from the deck of a ship, witnessed a bombardment that included hundreds of bombs, rockets, and shells that killed four of the Fort’s defenders, and then, at daybreak as a rainstorm ended, was relieved and proud to see the Fort’s flag still flying. He wrote some of his poem on the back of an envelope and then completed it at a local hotel.

Artists rendering of the shelling of Fort McHenry

The shelling of Fort McHenry

The flag that flew over Fort McHenry on that day has been preserved and is on display at the Smithsonian Institution. It is a 15-star, 15-stripe garrison flag that was made in 1813. Ohio, of course, is represented by one of the stars.

After Key’s poem was finished and published, it was set to the music of the The Anacreontic Song and quickly became popular. It was one of several popular American patriotic songs — America the Beautiful was another, as was Yankee Doodle — and apparently was claimed, and lustily sung, by soldiers on both sides during the Civil War. Interestingly, it did not officially become the National Anthem until 1931, through the enactment of legislation signed by President Hoover.

The Star-Spangled Banner has four verses, each of which mentions the “star-spangled banner” and ends with the deathless phrase , “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Of course, Americans are familiar with the first verse, which is the one sung before sporting events. The other verses are interesting, too. Who knew that the third verse referred to “pollution” and “the hireling and slave”? In fact, the third and fourth verses strike a distinctly martial, and religious, tone that has been echoed in many American political speeches since 1814:

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.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave

Happy Independence Day to all! Those interested in reading more about Francis Scott Key and The Star-Spangled Banner can go here and here.

The Anacreontic Song

The Star-Spangled Banner is our theme as we approach the Fourth.  

It is American lore that The Star-Spangled Banner is a poem composed by Francis Scott Key (a lawyer, incidentally) that is set to the tune of what was a popular British drinking song.   The “popular British drinking song” is The Anacreontic Song, the lyrics of which are found here.   A whimsical YouTube version of the song is below:

Hard to imagine you could do justice to that tune and remember the lyrics after quaffing a few pints at the neighborhood pub!  In any case, we thank our British friends for allowing us to borrow the melody.