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The Star-Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem, turned 200-years-old Saturday, Sept. 13. Written by Francis Scott Key in Baltimore during the War of 1812, Key composed what is now the U.S. anthem after espying the American flag flying at Fort McHenry after a night of bombardment by the British. During the bombardment, 800 rockets and around 1800 bombs were fired at the fort, but a flag was still flying the next morning.
The Star-Spangled Banner was written with the intention that it would be sung with the then-popular melody To Anacreon in Heaven. Previously, Key had written to the tune for a poem in 1805, even then penning out a line about a “star-spangled flag.”
Despite a popular belief about the song, it was not written while Keys was detained on a British ship watching the bombardment. As a D.C. lawyer, Keys had been sent by President James Madison to negotiate Dr. William Beanes’ release from British hands, Beanes being a surgeon that had been captured. Keys successfully negotiated the release of Beanes with State Department lawyer John Stuart Skinner, under the single condition that none of the Americans could go ashore until after the British attack on Baltimore. However, the bombardment that would become immortalized in The Star-Spangled Banner did not occur until Keys was back on an American sloop, though with Royal Marines as a guard.
The song became popular, being printed in about 20 newspapers nation-wide by halfway through that October. Its popularity grew more over time, until it was being used by the military for official ceremonies when the United States flag was raised and lowered.
Though written during the War of 1812, The Star-Spangled Banner did not become the American national anthem until 1931. It took 40 tries before Congress signed off on the law that allowed the song as the country’s anthem.
Currently, the 200th anniversary is a cause of commemoration. In Baltimore, a ten-day “free spectacular” was held to celebrate the song in the place of its inception with live performances, food, and historical demonstrations. On Sept. 13 there were fireworks and “star-studded patriotic concerts.” The event will continue until Sept. 16.
But even as The Star-Spangled Banner turns 200, the song is still a subject of debate among Americans. Some claim it is too hard to sing, and America the Beautiful has been suggested as a replacement. Called “unsingable,” The Star-Spangled Banner has been accused of being half an octave too high. There is also the matter of the three stanzas which are not sung, but which have “turned nasty” says Michael Kingsley, referring to lines like “No refuge could save the hireling and slave.” For the anniversary this year Politico published an article titled “Time to ditch Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Star-Spangled Banner has turned 200, with some celebrating its status while others point out issues they have with its lyrics, discuss the ease with which it can be sung, and suggest alternative replacements. However, the anthem is irremovable as part of America’s history.
By Jillian Moyet