We all know that the national anthem of the United States is "The Star-Spangled Banner." And we all know that its soaring music and inspiring, historic words cause shivers to run proudly along our spines when we hear its familiar notes and recall its lyrics.
Most of us also know it's hard to sing — but we love it.
The national anthem is in the news these days because Christina Aguilera had trouble singing the words correctly at the beginning of the Super Bowl last Sunday. She's not the first (and surely not the last) to have difficulty with "The Star-Spangled Banner." She deserves some sympathy in her embarrassment. But she'll never live it down. Whenever she's mentioned, many will remember "that performance" over all others.
But this provides a good time for us to recall some of the important history of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Many of us remember, from our school days, that the words were written as a poem by Francis Scott Key after he saw the British Navy's bombardment of the United States' Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.
The patriotic American lyrics ironically were put to the tune of a British drinking song — "To Anacreon in Heaven." The song was renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner." (Who was Anacreon? He was a Greek poet.)
There's an old joke about an American soldier on guard duty who encountered someone in the dark and challenged, "Who goes there?" Out of the night came the response: "An American." To be sure, the soldier demanded the intruder recite the words of "The Star-Spangled Banner." From the dark came the response: "I don't know the words." Then the guard, the story goes, promptly responded, "Pass, American," illustrating the embarrassing fact that many of us can't recite the words of our national anthem.
Well, to help us, here they are:
"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?"
Many of us may get through that first stanza OK, but most of us don't know the other verses:
"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.
"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.
"O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand/ Between their loved home and the war's desolation!/ Blest with victory 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!"
Though we may not be able to recite "The Star-Spangled Banner" fully, nor sing it with perfection, may we always give thanks for what it means to all of us Americans!