A Star Spangled Blog Post

I just watched another video on YouTube where another singer passionately belted out another rendition of The Star Spangled Banner.

Imagine the morning of September 14, 1814. The War of 1812 had recently ramped up, and after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in April 1814, the British forces turned their full attention to battle against the young American colonies.

From a ship anchored in Baltimore’s harbor, Francis Scott Key had been captured in an earlier battle. He watched helplessly as Fort McHenry withstood 25 hours of British bombardment. Would this key battle in the second war of American independence be victorious? Or would this battle be a major win for Great Britain?

On the back side of a letter, he penned the first verse of his poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” He continued to work on the poem until it was completed with four verses.

Today, we often sing the first verse.

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

Do you notice the last line ends in a question mark? Mr. Key could see the bombs all night. There were no street lights. CNN, Fox News, nor the BBC were available on his smart phone to update him with information. He could only wait anxiously through the night to learn if the beloved American Flag – and the nation he loved – would rise in the morning, or be replaced by a white flag of surrender?

If you stop singing with the song after that verse, you don’t find out the answer. If you end the song with that verse, there is no point in singing the song at all! Yet over and over, I hear singers end with great emphasis and crescendo asking that question, when instead it should be lowering to a feeling of desperation, anxiety, hope, courage, fear, and faith.

So here I repost the rest of the lyrics. Imagine the silence of the morning. The first rays of the sun appearing – the gleam of the mornings first beam. This is what Francis Scott Key saw in answer to his question. Notice that this verse ends in an exclamation point! This is where the crescendo properly belongs!

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:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

The next verse taunts the enemy a bit as it rejoices in the war’s victory. (If a singer were to choose to cut a verse from a performance, this would be my choice.)

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!

The final verse is a humble prayer, attributing to God thanks for rescuing the land from the hands of the enemy.

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!

It was an amazing poem. I love the raw emotion captured within the composition and rhyme. I wish that our attention span were longer, and that singers could sing it all.

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