Francis, Irving, And Kate
“The Star Spangled Banner” is, as you well know, our national anthem. A hard song to sing or play, it is nonetheless stirring, shivery and thrilling to hear with or without the words.
As you also well know, Francis Scott Key wrote it during the War of 1812. He was a young lawyer, born in western Maryland and he became worried, as everyone did back in the day, that the British forces would soon overtake Baltimore. Francis went to Fort McHenry in 1814 to use his lawyerly skills to negotiate the release of his pal Dr. William Beanes who was a captive of the British and was being held on board a ship. Key got his buddy freed during the Battle of Baltimore and from that same shipboard, watched the bombardment by the Brits of Ft. McHenry. The next morning in the clearing smoke, Key was surprised and happy to see that the huge American flag over the fort was still flying. That special flag was 30 feet high and 42 feet wide. Hey, that’s bigger than the first floor of my house!! (The flag is at the Smithsonian. Go see it. It gives shivers.)
But there Key stood in the dawn’s early light, and scribbled down a few words about “The Defense of Fort McHenry” which he later expanded into an entire poem renamed, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The newspapers got it and it was sung to the English drinking tune of, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” OK I had to look up “Anacreon” too—he was a Greek lyric poet from the 6th century BC. Who on earth knows these things? Apparently the English. Thus, “The Star Spangled Banner” was born and on March 3 of 1931 it became our national anthem. Key, obviously a great patriot, went on to become a DA in DC.
The song can also be most comical as you watch professional athletes and young school kids desperately trying to sing the words and pretty much not being able to. I can understand little kids having problems with “what so proudly we hail” and “perilous night” and “ramparts we watch” and things “gallantly streaming” but frankly I find it pretty unforgiveable that American-born athletes, and even lots of school kids have never had to learn those fabulous old words. How come?
No matter. At my advanced age I’m beginning to realize that nothing much is going to change and not enough people care about learning the words to our National Anthem anymore, and not enough people want to bother to place their hands across their hearts when it starts to play, or some men to bother removing their hats.
How I loved doing and seeing that as a young person. My father was such a staunch American that even if we heard the Star Spangled Banner on the radio or TV, we had to stand up (not especially easy in a moving car) and heaven help us if we ever allowed the American flag he flew in our back yard on a pole so high it could be seen for miles, to touch the ground when we took it down every dusk. And this from a man who was too young for WW I, and too old for WW II. He so regretted not being able to join American men in battle, and he did love the US of A.
But another stirring song seems to be just as patriotic and moving as the Star Spangled Banner. This one, called “God Bless America” was written by Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant to America and a member of a small club of the greatest composers of popular music the world has ever known or ever will again. To those of us who were born when I was, or thereabouts (1938) all I’d have to do is mention a few of his composed song titles and you’d be able to sing every single one of the tunes with all the words. Berlin, this gigantically talented man, who became an American citizen in 1918 well knew the horrors of poverty and non-freedom. He so loved America that he was actually proud to pay taxes for the privilege of living here.
And because he loved America so much, he wanted to compose a song about our country, now his, for a comedy show in which he was involved. He wrote it, but thought it a bit too solemn, and so in 1918, he put it into a drawer. Maybe a trunk. I wasn’t there.
But then came along 1938, a momentous year not only because I was born then on January 1, but because something far more important was happening; fascism and war threatened Europe. Irving Berlin had been born Israel Isidore Baline in May of 1888, in Tyumen Russian Empire. It came time to leave there, in a hurry. So the family did and settled, where else? On the Lower East Side of NYC where his beloved mother would often say “God Bless America” because had it not been for America, the family (8 kids!) would have had no other place to go.
Enter Kate Smith, an extremely popular singer, performer, radio and even TV talk show hostess from the 1920s until the 1980s. She had a contralto voice that could melt the handles off a brass can and all Americans loved her. I got to see her once, as a kid, when my grandmother took me in to see her do her radio show in NYC. I’ll never forget her. She sang the house down! Anyway, Kate loved and represented America so strongly that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced her to British royalty, he said, “Your Majesties, this is Kate Smith. This is America.” I mean come on, it can’t get much better than that, right? Wow.
So, “God Bless America,” languished twenty years in a trunk or drawer or whatever, until 1938 (love that year) when Kate Smith was searching for a patriotic song to sing to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day. Her manager asked Irving Berlin if he had such a song, Berlin remembered his discarded GBA, hauled it out, tweaked it and the rest is history. Kate Smith sang it hundreds of times and it always brought the house, and everything else down. Many people today think it should be our National Anthem, and many do cover their hearts with their hands or remove their hats when they hear it played or sung. For Berlin, the song thanked his adopted country for making everything possible for him. It’s only 40 words long after the intro, but so meaningful, so deeply inspiring that none of us can forget that on the afternoon of 9/11/01, US Senators and Congress people stood on the Capital steps and sang it. The casts of Broadway shows, days later, led many of their audiences in renditions of that great song before curtain time. I’d say it’s a keeper.
So, let’s think about this. Wouldn’t it be something if Francis, Irving and Kate, three incredibly patriotic Americans could all meet somewhere and talk? Wouldn’t they make people think about things? Wouldn’t they make us all feel proud to be Americans? Wouldn’t you just love to sit in on that meeting? Me too! Which of those mighty tunes would you tell them you’d want to be the National Anthem, if it came to a vote? Were I in that room, I’d have to vote for both. There’s no rule about having two anthems, is there? Both have such deep meaning and deeper history.