The writing of the United States National Anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is mired in a mixture of truth and fiction.
But one thing is undeniably true: Like the anthems of other nations, ours is an outward symbol of our country, a call to patriotism, constructed on our shared values, and a tradition that represents our loyalty to our flag and nation. When we stand and sing our anthem together, we reaffirm our love of country as individuals and as a collective.
As Americans, we’re fortunate to have opportunities to sing our anthem as a group. Whether we stand at attention to sing before a sporting event, or sing together at any AFE performance throughout the year, we remain free to belt it out from the heart, free to let the experience put our sense of national pride on full display.
Style and Substance
Anthems are written in the style of marches or hymns, musical varieties that stir emotion. They’re intended as a show of unity and they do the job well. When Whitney Houston sang the national anthem at Super Bowl XXV in 1991, the song carried forward our nation’s sense of determination as we entered the first Gulf War. At just 27 years old, Houston’s voice resonated with emotional depth, bringing tears to Americans in the stadium stands for the game, as well as to those standing at attention at home. That performance remains one of the most cherished moments in the beloved singer’s short life and career.
National anthem lyrics generally promote bravery, allegiance, glory, history. But Spain’s anthem, “La Marcha Real” is one of four national anthems without lyrics. Originally penned as a military march for the country’s infantry in 1761, and Spaniards haven’t been able to agree on the lyrics they like best to accompany the tune. It remains, however, the first anthem to be officially adopted by a nation, in 1770. Words for the anthem of Bosnia and Herzegovina have been proposed but have been awaiting official adoption since 2009. San Marino’s anthem, based on a 10th century chorale, only contains unofficial lyrics, and in Kosovo, ethnic diversity and a spirit of not playing language favorites leaves the anthem without words. Yet the music remains a stirring unifying force.
A common misconception about “The Star-Spangled Banner” is that Francis Scott Key wrote it as a poem, then someone else later set it to music. Actually, Key wrote the lyrics as a song, tied to a popular melody in his head. While the words are his, the first printing of the lyrics indicated they should be sung to the to “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the anthem associated with an amateur musician’s club in London. Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814, and it was widely published soon after to patriotic acclaim, yet it wasn’t adopted as the official anthem of the United States until 1931. And yes, it beat out “America the Beautiful” for the honor.
Changing Times, Changing Tunes
Anthems grew in popularity throughout Europe in the 18th century. Most notable are the anthems of Great Britain and France. Britain’s “God Save the King” was first performed in 1745, but wasn’t officially adopted as the national anthem until the early 1800s. France’s “La Marseillaise” became popular as a national anthem in 1792, and was officially adopted quickly in 1795. The world’s two newest anthems belong to East Timor (2002) and Georgia (2004).
National anthems are normally presented in the country’s predominant language. No so in Switzerland where the anthem has a version in each of its four official languages, German, French, Italian and Romansh. In New Zealand, with two anthems, citizens sing one of the anthems in both of the nation’s two official languages – setting the first verse in Māori and the second in English. In South Africa, five different languages are used, each carrying a unique stanza of the song. And in the Netherlands, two anthem versions are presented, in English and Dutch, and both versions are an acrostic (the first letter of each line forms a word).
Sing, Celebrate, Relax
The month of July brings plenty of patriotic opportunities your way, and lots of music that celebrates being free. AFE Heat Wave 2022 rolls through overseas bases, overflowing with rock, pop, country, EDM, metal and more, culminating in a range of shows on Independence Day at RIMPAC and elsewhere. And each time you hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” at any of those shows, you’ll stand a little taller, should-to-shoulder with other Americans who feel the same pride in the flag that you do. That’s the true power of our national anthem.