Mark ClagueSep 2, 2022
O Say Can You Hear?
A Cultural Biography of the Star-Spangled Banner
W. W. Norton 2022
The national anthem of the United States is familiar around the world from Olympic medal ceremonies and American patriotic celebrations. Like anything that is over 200 years old, the meaning of The Star-Spangled Banner has changed over time and the song has been the focus of controversy at different times in its history. What many people think they know about the anthem is as much myth and legend as it is fact.
Mark Clague explores many aspects of the song in his book, O Say Can you Hear? : A Cultural Biography of The Star-Spangled Banner (Norton, 2022). Francis Scott Key wrote the lyric to what would become the American national anthem around the time of a battle he witnessed during the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. As was the custom at the time, he intended for the words to be sung to a pre-existent tune that potential performers would have known. By the time Congress officially named the song the US’s anthem in 1931, it was merely ratifying what had already become a cultural tradition. The Star Spangled Banner has its detractors: the melody is difficult to sing, the words are hard to remember and militaristic. Francis Scott Key was a slaveholder and the word “slave” appears in the third verse. Clague takes on this seemingly straightforward history and more recent controversy by busting myths about the anthem, delving deep into the history of the song from its composition until the present, and highlighting some key performances that have helped to shape Americans’ understanding of their country and themselves. The book is just one aspect of a larger public humanities project.
The website for the Star Spangled Music Foundation contains even more information on the anthem and its history including content suitable for educators working from Kindergarten to the college level and continues to be updated.
Kristen M. Turner is a lecturer in the music and honors departments at North Carolina State University. Her research centers on race and class in American popular entertainment at the turn of the twentieth century.