The bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Francis Scott Key
Dolly Madison was making final preparations for that evening’s dinner party when word came from the president that, in the words of an earlier conflict, “the British are coming!” Shortly after her precipitous departure, the British did indeed arrive, helped themselves to the feast and then burned the White House (and the rest of the capital) to the ground. It was against this backdrop of defeat that Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner a month later when, against all odds, the invaders were repulsed in Baltimore. Stirring as it was, it would take more than a hundred years before it beat out some stiff competition to become the national anthem.
In 1814, most people thought that Hail Columbia was the nation’s song. The tune was written to commemorate Washington’s inauguration and when lyrics were added nine years later, it became an instant sensation. The first time it was sung in public, an ecstatic audience demanded 12 encores before the exhausted soloist staggered off the stage. It was a rousing tune and the chorus captured the nation’s spirit, “Firm, united let us be, Rallying round our liberty, As a band of brothers joined, Peace and safety we shall find.” Hail Columbia was so well entrenched, that by the Civil War, Lincoln commented that he’d rise and remove his hat when it was played. Foreign governments also assumed it was the nation’s anthem and played it when honoring American dignitaries. But its status was by no means secure.
In 1831, a friend of Samuel Smith gave him a German music book and asked him to translate or write new lyrics for the tunes. One melody in particular captured Smith’s attention and in the span of an afternoon he wrote the lyrics to what most of us know as My Country ‘Tis of Thee. Though Smith was unaware of it, the tune had been in circulation since at least 1740 though its origins were shrouded in mystery. Probably because of the mystery, a number of countries including Great Britain, Denmark, Prussia and Liechtenstein were claiming it as their anthem when it debuted in Boston on July 4, 1832. In fact, it was so popular that both Beethoven and Hayden incorporated it into their own works. Better known in its day as America, many valued it for its reverent quality.
Neither hymn-like nor martial, another contender for national anthem was, believe it or not, Yankee Doodle. The song was introduced during the French and Indian War to disparage colonials in general and colonial militia in particular. The trouble was that Yankee Doodle was and is such a catchy tune that when Americans got over being insulted, they couldn’t stop singing it. Besides, they probably found ironic pleasure in the fact that while it took three foot tall wigs for Brits, a feather was all the macaroni (18th century slang for bling) that Americans needed. More than anything else, Yankee Doodle showed a nation that could laugh at itself.
The four songs tell four stories. We’re a nation that perseveres in the face of adversity, joyously celebrates achievement, reverently appreciates what we’ve attained and can still enjoy a good laugh. In 1931 President Hoover settled the issue by making the Star Spangled Banner the official anthem of the United States. It gave precedence to perseverance as a national trait. Given our past and future challenges, it was a good choice. But let’s still remember to laugh! —Ebert