March 3 marks the 80th anniversary of President Herbert Hoover's signing the congressional resolution naming Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner" as America's national anthem. Not everyone celebrates this song, and I don't understand that. Maybe they think it's too hard to sing, or maybe it's just that they're closet al-Qaida supporters. Either way, they're wrong. It's a great song, and one worthy of our best efforts to croon it correctly.
As Asimov explains, the entire first stanza -- the only one most of us ever sing -- describes the dramatic scene where Francis Scott Key is on board a British prison ship during the War of 1812 to negotiate the release of a friend, as the British started bombarding Baltimore's Fort McHenry. This battle was critical to the war. "If Baltimore was taken," Asimov writes, "the nation, which still hugged the Atlantic coast, could be split in two. The fate of the United States, then, rested to a large extent on the success or failure" of holding the fort.
Key and his friend see the gallantly streaming flag at night. But, before the age of instant scores and 'round-the-world tweets, the only way they could know if America had held this strategically vital fort was if America's flag could be seen by the "dawn's early light." Was it still waving?
In a later stanza, you learn that it was. The British attack had failed, and the flag continued to wave "o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."
That's it. That's what the song means. And yet, like any great symbol, it means so much more to so many people. Or at least it should.
So, to honor this anniversary, I asked residents and visitors to our nation's capital about "The Star-Spangled Banner," and the results were enlightening -- and fun!