This year, the U.S. city of Baltimore, Maryland is celebrating its role in the birth of America’s national anthem.
National Park Service Ranger Vince Vaise is Chief of Interpretation, or head storyteller, at Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor. He says that two of the greatest symbols of the United States came out of a British attack on the fort during the War of 1812.
“The American flag and the national anthem... Now, the flag had already been invented, but it hadn’t really caught on yet. It was really the words of Francis Scott Key who, upon seeing the flag [still flying] over this fort on September 14th, 1814, 200 years ago, that really led to the flag becoming the great national icon for the United States that it is today,” he said.
When darkness fell September 13, 1814, the British were shelling Fort McHenry, and through the night observers of the battle strained to see whether the fort had fallen. But when the sun rose the next morning the sight of the American flag flying over Fort McHenry prompted Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and amateur poet, to write a poem that would be called “The Defence of Fort McHenry.”
“Word choice was very important to him," Vaise said. "We know that he thought about it because the original manuscript four verses are on display for this week and if you look at the first draft, you see that he scratched out a few words. ‘Oh say can you see through.’ No, no, no. ‘By the dawn’s- yes, by the dawn’s early light….’ So, clearly he thought about it.“
Vaise says Key didn’t immediately run to Washington, D.C. and announce he’d written the national anthem for his young country.
“Just the opposite. Francis Scott Key gave those four verses to his brother-in-law and good friend, who was a captain in the fort during the battle," he said. "So he might have just given it to him as a personal thing -like ‘hey, you were there, here’s something I’ve written.”
Key’s brother-in-law began giving away copies of the poem. Published copies of the poem suggested setting it to the tune of an old British drinking song. Within weeks it was being sung outside of Maryland.
Park Ranger Kristin Schenning says it’s interesting that the poem that eventually became America’s national anthem isn’t about the war, but is about the flag.
“Yes, it’s about a battle, but it’s really about the emotions that Francis Scott Key captures," she said. "It’s not necessarily about guns, and beating the British and all of that. It’s about this idea of asking is the flag still there and answering it with yes, it flies over the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
It wasn’t until 1931 that an Act of Congress made “The Star Spangled Banner” the official U.S. national anthem. Schenning says there’s still a connection between the flag and the song for many people, which could explain why some people react so strongly when they hear the song performed in non-traditional ways.
Rocker Jimi Hendrix’s unconventional performance is one of 15 that beat-boxer and vocal percussionist Shodekeh included in an exhibit he curated at Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture. The exhibit is called “For Whom It Stands,” and it brings together “culturally alternative” versions of the anthem as part of the bicentennial celebration.
“I listened to every state anthem, I listened to the anthems of all the island entities. South America’s anthems. The continent of Asia, Africa," he said. "I mean, I went through them all and I tried to find some of the more controversial examples or reinterpretations throughout history.”
Shodekeh closed out Maryland’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of "The Star Spangled Banner" by joining with an improvisational hip hop group and a group of classically trained musicians to perform a new interpretation of the anthem. Vocalist Katrina Ford hopes that people won’t think their version is “wrong” just because it’s different.
“Every performance should have its own style," she said. "Every performer should bring something unique to it. And I think that that even holds true for the national anthem.”