Between The Fourth Of July And Labor Day

Despite the awfulness of the political climate these days, the insistent ringing of phones with caller ID numbers we don't recognize, cringing every time we turn on the TV as yet another mud-slinging ad assaults our senses, and the bombardment of opinions crashing in on us from social media, I have to admit that the Fourth of July still stirs something in me. I remember the words to almost every patriotic ballad we learned in grade school, singing with gusto and and hands over hearts. Later, after a particular September day, a decade and a half ago, those same songs were sung with tears. No matter how, or even if, you remember them, they are generally part of the fabric of our upbringing in this nation. And, there is one in particular that stands out for me, even today.

"The Star-Spangled Banner," the United States of America's national anthem, is from a poem Defence of Fort M'Henry written on September 13, 1814 by the 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet, Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812.

Ironically, the poem was set to the tune of a popular British song written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men's social club in London. "To Anacreaon in Heaven" (or "The Anacreontic Song"), with various lyrics, was already popular in the United States. Set to Key's poem and renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner", it soon became a well-known American patriotic song.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" was recognized for official use by the U.S. Navy in 1889, and by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916; but it wasn't until 1931 when it was finally made the national anthem by a congressional resolution, signed by President Herbert Hoover -- over 125 years after it was first written. Proving that good things are, indeed, worth waiting for.

Even so, our national anthem is often argued to be "too hard" to sing. After all, it does cover an octave and one fifth -- not typically in anyone's regular range unless they sing often; and although the poem has four stanzas, only the first is commonly sung today. These words, however, are known to virtually every American older than a second-grader:

O say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Our flag does wave. We are free. And every time this song is sung with wavering voices or played by beginning brass players; piped over loudspeakers in stadiums or sung live by local choirs; every time, I hope people spare a moment to remember why we sing.

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

How is it that the very story this song tells is so often forgotten? How is it that every sports stadium in the United States of America is filled with the strains of this music, and the only line people typically cheer is the last? What happened to remembering how this country was forged?

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

How can we complain that this is too difficult to sing, when the very idea of The United States of America was thought "too difficult" to even imagine when our Founding Fathers initially met? Our flag does in triumph wave.

Although he ended his poem with a prayer (regardless of how you feel about that, it is a protected right under our flag and I respect that he was so moved), Francis Scott Key obviously felt that last line was most important: every stanza ends with it. We are the home of the free and the brave. Remember that. Every time. Even better: Let's live up to that. We did, once upon a time. There is no good reason on this Earth that we can't do it again.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!