March 3rd marks the 81st year since the United States adopted The Star-Spangled Banner as its national anthem in 1931. The lyrics are from a poem written in 1814 by the 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key, after witnessing the bombing of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy ships during the War of 1812. One of the points of contention in that conflict was British support of our indigenous Native Americans against the American westward aggression. Yes, we have a long history of bloody imperialism. This is especially striking, considering our own history as a group of 13 colonies once ruled under imperialism ourselves.
Turning rhyme into melodic reason, Key’s poem was set to a British score written by the Anacreontic Society, a men's social club in London. It was named after the Greek poet Anacreon, “the convivial bard of Greece”. His songs celebrated women, wine, and entertainment. I’m guessing the women required escorts in this pre-civil rights men’s club.
The lyrics come from "Defense of Fort McHenry" and the original song title was "To Anacreon Heaven". Set to Key's poem and renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner", it was finally crowned as the national anthem on March 3, 1931. Apparently with its range of one and a half octaves, it’s known for being difficult to sing.
Not to worry.
Enter the late Whitney Houston. Ms. Houston gave it a new vibrant meaning with silky smooth mastery. She recorded "The Star Spangled Banner" as a charity single to raise funds for soldiers and their families during the Persian Gulf War. She performed this American classic at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 before 73,813 fans, 115 million viewers in the United States and a worldwide television audience of 750 million.In an admirable gesture of patriotism Whitney donated her portion of the proceeds. (You might want to be sitting down if you follow the link.)
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the recording was re-released. Again, she donated her share of the royalties to the firefighters and victims of the terrorist attacks. The 2001 single went platinum. Incredibly, this resulted in Ms. Houston becoming the first musical performer ever to put our national anthem within the Top 10 in the US, and have it certified platinum as well. In 2001, the song reached number six on the Billboard Hot 100. Perhaps presciently, it would be Whitney’s last Top 10 entry on the chart.
Over 20 years before Ms. Houston’s performance in 1991, Jimi Hendrix performed the song at Woodstock as a psychedelic improv-instrumental. To many of us Aquarians, the Hendrix performance remains equally inspiring. Then, early on the morning of September 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix was found dead in London, the lethal result of wine and sleeping pills.
As we all now tragically know, Whitney Houston was also found dead. On Saturday, February 11th, she was found in the bathtub of a Beverly Hills hotel. Her life and the inspiration she has shared with America and the world at large will not be forgotten. Her tragic death is still quite fresh in the hearts and minds of America and the world.
Perhaps equally tragic is another tale of a bath tub, but for its malice rather than accident. Anti-tax activist and President of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist, was famously quoted a couple of years ago as saying “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
An anti-government attitude has been a part of the American landscape since our inception as a gangly bunch of 13 colonies sprawling along the east coast well over 200 years ago. But for the past decade, and especially for the past 3 years, the rhetoric against taxes and government in general has intensified.
Not only have we witnessed a strident bashing of government, but also an all-out attack on specific government programs and their proponents, most notably against President Obama. Many observers have claimed there is a racial component to all this rhetoric now that Barack Obama has been elected to the Oval Office. Like Ms. Houston and Mr. Hendrix, Mr. Obama is an incredibly talented African American. The emphasis on here is on “American”. Like them, and many other Americans, Barack Obama is also known to strike an occasional note or two at the microphone. But unlike the two deceased performers, he has become a lightning rod for criticism, most, if not all of it, unjustified.
For all the patriotic fanfare when it comes to singing our National Anthem I can’t help but think of all the bashing of the President of the United States we have witnessed during the past 3 years with questions of Barack Obama’s citizenship, religion and even patriotism.
Last week even the American Dream as embodied in striving to make a college education universally available to all was attacked as snobbery by presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Santorum is calling for a decreased federal role in education. Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry before him called for abolishing the Department of Education, while Newt Gingrich, has said he would dramatically shrink the department and remove all of the regulations it imposes.
As a further sign of social unrest, just this week we have seen two young Americans dead from an Ohio school shooting. I argued last year for stricter gun controls. To repeat that position, we need to close gun show loop holes and reinstate the high capacity magazine ban that Congress has let lapse.
At a time when our entire nation has been hit hard with the worst post-war recession, hitting minorities the hardest, Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich recently remarked “And so I’m prepared if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” Why are the NAACP and food stamps even being mentioned in the same breath? I suspect it has more to do with bias than recession economics.
As I mentioned, here, Budget Chairman Paul Ryan Congressman Ryan’s budget proposal “Path to Prosperity” offers us the “gift” of a pathway to ruin. Is it simply intended as entertaining banter for seniors who don’t need this safety net? Prosperity is certainly not a realistic part of the equation. The budget Paul Ryan has proposed would further destroy the social fabric of our nation. It doesn't come close to adding up. It would also extend the Bush tax cuts which did not create any jobs and has played a big role along with the wars and the recession in putting us in our current economic situation.
While we have seen the end of at least one war, the invasion of Iraq, we have seen new wars right here on American soil. We have seen a wave of voter suppression masquerading as voter I.D. laws. This is in effect reinstating a poll tax and reverting back to the days of Jim Crow.
Since early 2011 the 30 year war on labor has intensified. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker launched attack on public sector employees and unions, threatening to deploy the national guard to halt the resulting protests. This is only one of the many examples of the assault on labor.
On nearly a party line vote, the House passed a bill intended to stop a preceding National Labor Relations Board decision that would allow workers to cast a timely vote on unionization once they’ve petitioned for it. By ruling that employers’ legal challenges can be entertained only after a vote, the labor board effectively denied employers the ability to hold up a vote for weeks, months or even years. With these important elections delayed, the NLRB recently said, elections may be denied. The House bill would allow the delay by stopping the labor board decision.
Most recently we’ve been seeing an escalating war on women’s reproductive rights. Both Virginia and Alabama legislatures have proposed an egregious assault on women with vaginal ultrasound bills requiring new invasive procedures that would effectively violate the privacy, dignity and civil rights of women.
The preceding points are by far only a small sample of the retreat we have taken into the Dark Ages, admittedly long after the age of Anacreon but long before the long night aboard that ship in the War of 1812 when Francis Scott Key spilled the ink that eventually articulated the collective words of the American people.
Our national anthem is a very colorful reminder that we have but one American flag. It might have 13 stripes, but it has 50 stars. Our official flag is not the yellow Gadsden flag, the Confederate Flag with 13 stars and two crossed bars, or the circular Colonial Flag, all symbols that have experienced a rebellious revival during the last few years.
Unless we address this dereliction of duty in our protection of liberty and equity for all Americans, Key’s inspiring words put to music that riveted the crowds during the 1991 Super Bowl in 1991 and Woodstock in 1969 and that open sporting and all major events will be reduced to mere hollow banter like a Fourth of July sparkler that fizzles out after a few glorious sprays of light.
With the passing of Whitney Houston and Jimi Hendrix, and President Obama’s need for our support in this difficult time, our National Anthem needs a renewed voice of inflection that projects a unified passion from all Americans.
So, the question becomes:
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?