“The Star-Spangled Banner” did not become the official national anthem of the United States until March 3, 1931 (80 years ago today [note: as of March 3, 2013 it’s 82 years]), when President Herbert Hoover signed a Congressional resolution (46 Stat. 1508, codified at 36 U.S.C. § 301) making it so. For many, Key’s poem, written September 14, 1814, had functioned as the nation’s de facto anthem or at least the symbolic sonic equivalent of the flag, since the U.S. Civil War, but it had never been recognized legally as the nation’s anthem. The United States simply didn’t have one, although on occasions of state before 1931 “Hail Columbia” was likely to be used. In 1889, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was recognized by the Secretary of the Navy and by World War I, President Woodrow Wilson’s executive order made it the official anthem of the U.S. military.
Although pushed by the Daughters of the War of 1812, the decision to make the Banner the U.S. anthem was not without controversy. Pacifists decried the military occasion of the lyric; prohibitionists were embarrassed by its use as a drinking song (see previous post), nationalists disliked the British origins of the tune, while internationalists found the text to be anti-British, even music teachers were against the choice, as the melody’s wide melodic compass (what musicians call the interval of a twelfth) made the song difficult at best for group performance. Alternates such as “Hail Columbia,” “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,” “America,” “America the Beautiful,” and even “Yankee Doodle” found supports; contests were held to compose an entirely new anthem to which thousands of entries were submitted. Yet, “The Star-Spangled Banner” remained the obvious choice.
The 1931 resolution was mute on the specific version of the song to be used. It reads simply, “The composition consisting of the words and music known as the Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem.” Details of proper deportment during performance are given, but no sheet music is attached—the identification of the song being apparently so obvious as to merit no definition. Yet many versions of the Banner had long been in circulation.
Congress might have intended that the military’s so-called “Service Version” would function as the official model, but the very success of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in American oral tradition had given voice to a number of subtle variants. In fact, the Service Version itself differs significantly from Key’s original in details of melody, rhythm, and tempo.
As a music historian, my fascination with the anthem derives from this precious and patriotic ambiguity. Differences and variations are what give the anthem its magic as the longstanding tradition of arranging the tune invites Americans to sing themselves into citizenship, giving voice a wide variety of feelings and images about what it means to be American. Performances in contexts from high school graduations to professional baseball games, in crowds or as solo song, in versions both straight forward and personalized, respond to the infinite variety of our nation’s citizens to express an active engagement and individual commitment to democracy through participation.