March 3

2015, 1931

Two curiously connected dates; the second is below; the first is the more recent:


Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, invited to speak to a joint session of Congress by Republican Senate Speaker John Boehner, without bothering to consult with President Obama - a symptom of the appalling state of American politics, which had come down to little more than nose-thumbing from both sides. Inviting Netanyahu just two weeks before an Israeli election was surely no coincidence either, but the real point was the on-going discussions between Iran and various parties, including the US and the EU, which at that moment were within days of a possible conclusion. From the instant of the announcement of the invitation, Netanyahu's visit was controversial, to the extent that many Democratic Representatives and Senators chose not to attend his speech. It required political and diplomatic skills of the highest order to make any sort of speech in such circumstances, yet Netanyahu managed it. Below are two links, the first to a transcript of the speech published by the Washington Post, the second to a video of it broadcast by the New York Times.


Question: for how long has America had a National Anthem?

Answer: you'll be surprised. Only since 1931. Here's the story. 

In 1812 Britain and America went to war. It lasted three years. On September 3rd, 1814, a man named Francis Scott Key was sent with a flag of truce on a mission by President Madison, to secure the release of a physician named William Beanes who was accused of aiding the arrest of British soldiers. He boarded a British flagship in Chesapeake outside Baltimore, and spoke with two senior British commanders, who agreed the request. But Key overheard them discussing war plans, so he was not permitted to leave the ship until the battle was over.

During the night, Key witnessed the ferocious bombardment of Fort McHenry and Baltimore, and noticed that the fort's flag continued to fly right to the end, when the Americans had held out for an improbable victory. In the morning the soldiers in the Fort raised an even larger flag to celebrate their victory.

That flag, which at the time had only fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, came to be known as the Star Spangled Banner, and you can actually see it on display in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

Key was so inspired by the victory at Baltimore that he scribbled a poem on the back of a letter he happened to have in his pocket. He finished the poem a few nights later, and gave it the title "The Defense of Fort McHenry".

Later he gave the poem to his brother-in-law, who thought it would fit a drinking song called "The Anacreontic Song", written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a gentleman's club in London - which was not a gentleman's club as we understand the term today, but a gathering of amateur musicians. Two newspapers printed the song, and then a host of other newspapers reprinted it, changing its title to "The Star-Spangled Banner" (well, wouldn't you? Think of all the bad puns people could make out of the original, of which "The Anachronistic Song" may be the most obvious, but probably the least derogatory). Under its new name it became an immediate hit, and in July 1889, seventy-five years after it was written, the Secretary of the Navy made it the official tune to be played whenever the flag was raised.

Move forward another twenty-seven years, to 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson ordered that "The Star-Spangled Banner" be played at all military and "other appropriate occasions", which included the baseball World Series of 1918.

Another thirteen years on, to 1929, and a man named Robert Ripley drew a cartoon, making fun of the fact that America was the only country in the world that did not have a national anthem. So on March 3rd 1931 President Herbert Hoover signed an order (46 Stat. 1508, codified at 36 U.S.C. § 301) making "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official national anthem of the United States.

The text below includes the guitar chords that I worked out with my Miami school's music teacher when we decided that the regular recitation that alternates with the Oath of Allegiance needed musical accompaniment, and no website or chord book that we could find offered any guitar chords; people who can actually sing this terribly complicated music are even fewer (it's the modulation to C# in the fifth line that causes the problems), though piano arrangements are easy to find.
     E           B     C#m   Ab       C#m        F#  B
O! say can you see       by the dawn's early   light

              E                 B                  E
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming.

B                    E               B        C#m  Ab              C#m   F#  B      
Whose broad stripes and bright stars  through the perilous   fight,

              E                  B                         E
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.

                                  C#                           F#m         B
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

         E                           B                     C#m      F#   B
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

       E                      A            C#   F#m      F#7    Bsus B
Oh, say does that  star-spangled  banner  yet      wave

              E      B       E      C#m    E/B        B7  E
O'er the land of the free and the home of the  brave?

There are actually three other verses, though they are not part of the national anthem:

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.

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!

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