AS I HAVE probably noted in this space before, the Smithsonian magazine is one of the few that gets results from its many solicitations of my subscription.
The issue for June of this year has a cover story about our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner. Perhaps like most Americans, I have never given much thought as to how we acquired this hard-to-sing song.
A full page color painting of the author, Francis Scott Key, done by Tim O’Brien, a grandson of Irish immigrants, introduces the story.
Oddly enough, O’Brien could find few good images of Key to base his painting on.
The images he did find are beautifully introduced by this poem written by George Green, titled Broad Stripes and Bright Stars. Green had seen Jimi Hendrix perform the anthem in 1969 and watched the aftermath of the 9 /11 attacks from a New York rooftop Green wrote:
It was a joyful noise unto the Lord
that Hendrix made that morning, smelting down
the national anthem.
He did a Motown saraband
and roused the bleary throng of lotus-eaters
so gallantly streaming there in the Woodstock pasture.
The gang at the V.F.W. was not amused,
preferring a traditional arrangement
of the peppy trumpet march turned drinking song
first known as “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
Enter Francis Scott Key, the lawyer-poet,
perched in the rigging of a British sloop,
an overdressed envoy gesticulating
like a tenor toward the bombed fort and snapping flag,
his verses coming in a vatic trance
to be scribbled later on an envelope.
All night on deck Doc Beane had paced and nattered,
“Is our flag still there?” It was, and Key’s poetastery
was soon sung out by choirs across the land.
But the president and his bewildered cabinet
had gathered like rambling gypsies on a hilltop,
the better to behold their smoking capital,
and Dolley Madison, disguised as a farmwife,
wandered in a wagon, up and down the roads,
for two days nearly lost in the countryside