Roberts on Ferris, 'Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem'

Marc Ferris
Brian Roberts

Marc Ferris. Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Illustrations. 328 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-1518-5.

Reviewed by Brian Roberts (University of Northern Iowa) Published on H-FedHist (September, 2017) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

On the night of September 13, 1814, as British gunboats shelled Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, the garrison commander ordered his troops to hoist an enormous forty-two-by-thirty-foot American flag. The point was to anger the British and impress local observers. Whether it did the first is debatable, but it certainly impressed Francis Scott Key. Lawyer, slave-owner, and gentleman poet, Key dashed off an ode to the flag the next morning. Set to music, Key’s verses became “The Defense of Fort McHenry” and later “The Star Spangled Banner.” Two hundred years later, African American writer Amiri Baraka summed up the resulting song as “pompus, hypocritical, vapid, and sterile.” For Baraka the anthem was the product of Americans who “canonized themselves into some kind of Chosen People” (p. 211). Between these two moments, according to Marc Ferris, the Star Spangled Banner would have a long and multifaceted career, as a song, as a contested symbol, even as a historical agent.

First there was the song. Key was probably thinking of a tune as he penned his verses. As Ferris points out, he had a number of choices. After all, this was a prime moment for patriotic songs. According to Ferris, the English tended to use hymns for national tunes, particularly in songs like the unofficial anthem “God Save the King.” The French anthem “The Marseillaise” was written specifically for the Revolution, with a marching cadence to match its militant and bloody lyrics. Key set his poem to an English drinking song. As Ferris points out, the tune of the “Star Spangled Banner” was the official song of London’s Anacreontic Society, a ballad, written about 1775, called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Anacreon was the social club’s muse, a Bacchus-like character who inspired long nights of heavy drinking, wench chasing, and ale-inflected singing.

What did Key have in mind? Despite the fact that musicologists have long identified this as the anthem’s most intriguing mystery, Ferris does not have much to say on the subject. Could it be that a touch of vulgarity, an element of the common, was an understood characteristic of the American identity? Ferris simply explains the choice by pointing out that the tune was popular. Indeed, anyone who does research into the popular music of the nineteenth century will find a number of songs set to “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The list includes everything from patriotic numbers to ditties about farmers’ daughters and murderous rakes. There are at least two takeaways from this fact. One is that the past really is a foreign country. Another is that it took time for the tune to take on its sacred qualities as a national anthem.

Ferris is at his best in detailing this process. As his well-told anecdotes clearly show, the “Star Spangled Banner” was highly contested as both song and symbol. During the American Civil War, many in the Confederacy rejected the anthem as pro-Union, preferring Dan Emmett’s “Dixie.” The result was one of the war’s great ironies: the South turned against a slave-holder’s song and embraced a blackface number by an anti-slavery Northerner. By the turn of the twentieth century the anthem had backers devoted to making it part of America’s civil religion. From the twenties, into the Depression, and especially with the Cold War, they were successful. They formed organizations to push for proper patriotic etiquette. They instructed Americans on how to salute the flag and on proper ways of showing respect for the anthem.

Ferris collects the individuals who promoted and defended the anthem under a category he refers to as “militant patriots.” On the other side, he positions “liberal patriots.” For him this seems to mean anyone who dared question the sacredness of the flag or anthem. During the first half of the twentieth century, the main issue for these critics was the song itself. Many pointed out that it had an alehouse tune; others that it was difficult to sing; still others that it sounded antique, like a strange mixture of a waltz and a march. There were regular efforts to find better options, such songs as “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.”

According to Ferris, the militants ruled the day. By the 1950s, they made refusing to remove one’s hat at the playing of the anthem a death-defying act. They forced generations of children to sing it every morning at school. For a while, at least before the Nazis ruined it, the kids performed a salute as they sang, extending their right arms and hands—palms down—toward the flag. Patriotic watchdogs lobbied Congress for bills to protect the flag and supported legislation—successful in 1931—to get the “Star Spangled Banner” named as the nation’s official anthem. Only in the countercultural sixties did the liberal patriots have their moments. At the 1968 baseball World Series, Hispanic folksinger Jose Feliciano performed a soulful version of the anthem. A year later, Jimi Hendrix played an electric-guitar version at Woodstock that seemed to simultaneously celebrate America and criticize the “bombs bursting in air” over Vietnam. Both versions sent the militant patriots into apoplectic fits of rage.

Finally, as Ferris implies, the “Star Spangled Banner” can be seen as having its own historical agency. On its way to status as national anthem the song fended off several rivals. In the early twentieth century, it barely beat back a challenge from “Hail Columbia,” a song that was probably the favorite of the elite. Ferris’s style through the book is strictly anecdotal, but in telling these stories he makes the lugubrious anthem sound like a plucky survivor. In the post-World War II years, as it became a regular ritual at countless events from ball games to car races, the anthem took on a kind of malevolent presence. Many performers hated it; nearly all feared it. The problem was that they had to remember the tongue-twisting lyrics; they had to get through the high-pitched “red glare” of its rockets and the throat-torching effort of the extended “free-ee!” From this time to the present the “Star Spangled Banner” reduced hundreds of people to tears.

Ferris is not one of these people. His narrative does not really reveal anything “unlikely” about the anthem. For the most part, Star Spangled Banner consists of a string of anecdotes, but Ferris tells the stories well and tries to be careful to position them in historical context. His analytical device of placing debates over the anthem in a dynamic between “militant” and “liberal” patriotism seems clunky at times. Many historians of music would prefer a more accurate dynamic of official or “top-down” patriotism versus vernacular or local expressions. Indeed, all of Ferris’s examples of anthems seem curiously imposed from above. There are no local efforts here, no references to the possibility that some school children might have preferred singing “The Eyes of Texas,” or that sailors preferred “Hearts of Oak.” Still, Ferris has accomplished something here that many would have probably thought impossible: he has made the “Star Spangled Banner” sound good, or at least interesting.

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Citation: Brian Roberts. Review of Ferris, Marc, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL:

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