In preparation for Sunday and July 4, I have put the red, white, and blue wreath on the front door, set out the red and blue bath towels, and changed the table linens to flag-like placements. Besides displaying small flags on our church grounds, we will celebrate our country’s birthday this year with these acts, though in the past there was always a family reunion.
Sadly, with that generation gone, we no longer meet family en masse with any regularity; instead, we all celebrate in our separate ways, hindered by distance and competing events.
We will also commemorate the day with patriotic songs, which brings me to today’s topic: Where did these songs originate? Who wrote them, and what inspired the lyrics?
Every elementary student knows that Francis Scott Key stood on the deck of a merchant ship in September 1814 watching while the British Navy fired on Fort McHenry. The colonists were in the middle of the War of 1812 at a critical point: If Fort McHenry, the last line of defense for Baltimore, fell, then the British would capture the city.
Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer, was with British Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner. They were trying to gain the release of Dr. William Beanes, who refused to give food and drink to British soldiers who came to his house. Key and Stuart saved Dr. Beanes from hanging, but all three were stuck on board because they knew British plans to attack Baltimore. These plans went awry because of the British gunners’ poor aim, because sunken merchant ships blocked the entrance to the harbor, and because American soldiers thwarted a rear attack on the fort.
For 24 hours, British mortar shells and rockets left a cloud of smoke, but Maj. George Armistead, commander, raised a 30 x 42-foot flag over the fort, inspiring Key to write some notes for a poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” A Baltimore newspaper published the poem after which Key’s brother-in-law, John Stafford Smith, set the words to music. This combined version was then published under the title, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Only in 1929 did Congress declare “The Star-Spangled Banner” the “national anthem,” but objections followed because the tune was taken from a song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the theme for the Society of Anacreon (1766-1791) in London, a men’s club devoted to music. The theme song had some risqué allusions, for example: “I’ll instruct you like me to entwine the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s wine.” [???]
Other negatives included that it was too hard to sing, dance, or march to; and that it was too military-themed. Finally, it was officially adopted by law on March 3, 1931.
‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’
A contender for the national anthem, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” has a more complicated origin. What is definite is that the Rev. Samuel Francis Smith wrote the lyrics; who wrote the tune remains a mystery: Was it the English composer John Bull, the French court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, or was it Henry Carey, a British singer-composer who wrote the words and the music, as his son claims? The first printed version occurred in 1744 in the tune book “Thesaurus Musicus,” according to the Library of Congress website.
You may have noticed that the tune we sing is the same the British people sing to “God Save the Queen/King.” It became popular in London theaters in 1745 as a show of support for King George II. By the 1790s the Danish adopted the melody as its national anthem, and six other places followed suit, including Prussia and Liechtenstein.
The first version for the American British colonies dates from 1761 as a modification of a hymn, “Whitefield’s Tune,” published in a collection of sacred songs which William Bradford printed. At George Washington’s first inauguration in 1789, greeters in New York city sang these words: “Hail, thou auspicious day! / For let America / Thy praise resound. / Joy to our native land! / Let every heart expand, / For Washington’s at hand, / With glory crowned.”
While he was studying at Andover Theological Seminary in 1831, Samuel Francis Smith wrote the words we know today as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” It debuted on July 4, 1831, at a children’s service at the Park Street Church in Boston.
‘God Bless America’
While serving in the U. S. Army in 1918 at Camp Upton, Yaphank, New York, during WWI, Irving Berlin wrote the first version of “God Bless America,” intending it to be used in a revue called Yip Yip Yaphank. He put the song away until 1938 when he revived it as a “peace song” broadcast on Armistice Day on Kate Smith’s radio show.
Born Israel Beilin, Berlin arrived in the United States from Russia at age five in 1893. Upon arriving at Ellis Island, he was put in a pen with his brother and five sisters until immigration officials declared the family fit to be allowed into the city. As a young boy, after his father’s death, Berlin helped support the family by selling newspapers. In the Bowery, after he heard music from saloons and restaurants, he began singing as he sold newspapers. People tossed coins at him. His father had been a cantor in Russia, and Berlin found a career as a singer in bars and restaurants.
In 1911, Berlin had his first international hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He could not read sheet music and played the piano only in F-sharp on his custom instrument that had a transposing lever. During his 60-year career, he wrote 1,500 songs, among them scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films.
‘America the Beautiful’
Little space remains for “America the Beautiful,” another favorite. An English professor, Katharine Lee Bates, wrote the words, and Samuel B. Ward, a church organist and choirmaster, composed the tune. It began as a poem, “Pikes Peak,” inspired when Bates took a train trip to accept a job at Colorado College. The words came to her as the landscape thrilled her.
As you celebrate Independence Day--SING!
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.