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A Yankee Notebook

July 11, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Hearing the National Anthem sung several times during the recent Independence Day celebrations reminded me of a story. Some years ago, on a canoe trip to Canada, we discovered that we weren’t alone on the river. Four men were camped about half a mile away; and when they paddled over after supper for a visit, we found they were Canadian.

They’d brought a bit of whiskey with them, not enough to be jolly, but enough to express neighborliness. We sat talking as the sun sank uncertainly toward a two-hour disappearance. It was the Fourth of July.

“Hey,” said one of them, “it’s the Fourth of July. Your Independence Day, isn’t it?”

We allowed as how it was. “Well, don’t you Yanks always sing the national anthem and set off fireworks and everything to celebrate?”

I dug in my little back pack and came up with my bear-banger, a tiny launcher shaped like a fountain pen that, when activated, fires a 12-gauge charge about 50 feet into the air, where it detonates with a very satisfying roar designed to repel inquisitive bears. As its echoes died away, he asked, “Now, do you know your national anthem better than that Roseanne Barr there?” It was 1991, a year after Roseanne had blown it badly at a Padres game and inexplicably grabbed her crotch. And it was a moment for which I’d been waiting many years. I still knew all four verses.

“Why, yes,” I responded. “I happen to know the whole thing. Would you like to hear it?”

Fewer Americans each year, it turns out, know the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And almost none know anything about the battle it describes: the September 1814 defense against the British navy of Fort McHenry, which guarded the Port of Baltimore. Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer, author, and amateur poet, was on board a British ship seeking the release of an American citizen. Because he’d seen the British strength and deployments, he wasn’t allowed to return to the city before the battle began. So he watched it all night, and as dawn broke, could see that the fort’s flag still flew. On his way back to shore later, he wrote the words we still sing:

Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there....

After that stirring first stanza, however, the song goes rapidly downhill:

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:...

The third stanza can charitably be described as Georgian-Era Execrable:

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....

Then, blessedly, Key rallied before he tackled the fourth:

Oh! 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!

The religious overtones may make more sense when you learn that Key afterward became a vice-president of the American Bible Society. Also, during the Second World War, when I first learned the words, we sang, “Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just.” I was delighted to learn later that Key had left God a disclaimer opportunity.

And the Canadians? About the middle of the third stanza, they cried, with great enthusiasm, “Okay, okay! That’s great there! Thanks very much. That’ll do it, eh?”

Photo by Willem Lange