Oh Say, Can You Sing? BETA
"Midrash" by Nancy Herther (October 2014) (edited and updated by George Barany, June 2016)

Calendar year 2014 marked many important events, not the least of which was the 200th anniversary of the writing of our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, by Francis Scott Key.  We decided to celebrate this with a puzzle that peppered in some other historic facts and places.  Originally intended for release to coincide with the anniversary, the puzzle is still an appropriate way to think back on the history of this patriotic symbol ... and can be trotted out annually on June 14.

[GB adds: At one point, we were encouraged to aspire for mainstream media (MSM) publication, if not for the anthem anniversary itself or the military events associated with it, then perhaps for the institution of Flag Day, or for Flag Day itself, or even for Independence Day (the Fourth of July), but we were both so occupied with our day jobs that we never quite got our submissions organized. MSM's loss is our website's gain, though!]

Key, a 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet, wrote the words as he watched the battle being fought at Fort McHenry near Washington D.C.  Earlier the Brits had burned Washington D.C., setting fire to many public buildings, including the White House and Capitol.  On September 14, 1814, he and a companion watched in the distance as the battle raged on.  A huge 15-star, 15-stripe American flag flew over the fort and, from a safe distance, Key watched as the sun rose the next morning to see that the fort was still in American hands as the tattered flag continued to fly. Today that flag–or what remains of it–is on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.  The flag originally was 30' by 42' in size–making it easy to be seen from a distance.

Key's brother-in-law actually made the connection to the popular British music The Anacreontic Song. Within days, two local papers printed the song, which became popular immediately.  Key wrote four verses, but only the first is sung. It didn't become our national anthem, though, until the 20th century.  In 1889 it was made the official Navy tune to be played at flag raisings.  In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at military and other official occasions.  In the 1918 World Series, it was played for the first game–and ever since.

However, it took Ripley's Believe It or Not to get the song officially as our national anthem.  In 1929, Ripley featured in his syndicated cartoon the fact that we didn't have a national anthem.  John Philip Sousa noted that the "spirit of the music inspires" as much as Key's "soul-stirring" words.  In March 1931, Herbert Hoover signed the law officially adopting the song as the national anthem.

Key never became renowned for his poetry, but his place in history is established by his work as a lawyer, politico, and U.S. Attorney.  He defended Sam Houston during his trial in the U.S. House of Representatives (for attacking another Congressman) and helped prosecute a man who had tried to assassinate Andrew Jackson. Those early politicians were a rather a rather rowdy bunch!

Musicologist Mark Clague noted in a New York Times piece [click here] recently that "Key wouldn't really recognize what we sing today. It's missing a phrase of music, it’s at the wrong tempo, it’s much slower, it’s sung by a massed group of people instead of an individual soloist." Today there are many different versions of the nation anthem out there–for every musical taste from Jimi Hendrix to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Roseanne Barr (yikes!). Better to enjoy our puzzle!

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