The bizarre and horrible renditions notwithstanding (i.e., Roseanne Barr, Michael Bolton), most people can at least sing the national anthem. Or, I should say, they can sing what they believe is the national anthem. After all, most folks have been to enough civic events and ballgames to have memorized it.
In 1814, Francis Scott Key witnessed the day-long bombardment of Chesapeake Bay by the British. As the sun rose the next morning, September 14, he penned what was then the “Defense of Fort McHenry,” later to become “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But if you ask the vast majority of folks to sing our national anthem, this is what you will hear:
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming, whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
And most Americans think that’s it. They don’t know that there are four stanzas to our national anthem. We only sing the first. And the stanza we sing is actually a question; it ends in a question mark. The verse asks if the flag is still there, and that is where we leave it. Time for the ballgame to begin.
What we miss is the answer that follows. In the second stanza, Key begins to answer his question in the affirmative. That stanza is:
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—O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Have you ever read that stanza, much less sung it? Maybe not.
In the third stanza, Key berates the enemy who attacked us:
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 wash’d out their foul footstep’s 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’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
But it’s the fourth stanza that brings it all home. Key then highlights the power behind the victory of the free and the brave. He identifies America as a “heaven rescued land,” praises the power that made us and preserved us as a country, and confirmed that ultimately our trust is in God. Here is the answer to the first stanza:
O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d 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.
As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I wonder why we never sing the other stanzas (how much longer could it take before the start of a ballgame)?
But more than that, I wonder if — after we have sung that question — if we really understand or remember the answer.
The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.