BROOKE GLADSTONE: Symbols that represent our nation are both potent and, yet, strangely personal. Will Robin, assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland, wrote last year in The New Yorker, that such symbols are always more complicated than their origin myths. For instance, if we drill down into the rich history of the national anthem, we can see Colin Kaepernick as an heir to a long lineage of musical defiance.
WILLIAM ROBIN: Typically, we talk about the beginning of “The Star-Spangled Banner” being 1814. Francis Scott Key aboard a ship in the Baltimore Harbor, come daybreak, the flag is still standing after this battle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
WILLIAM ROBIN: And he pens this poem, and I’m gonna come back to that part --
-- because that’s part of this myth of “The Star-Spangled Banner” called the “Defence of Fort McHenry,” so one myth, the idea that Francis Scott Key wrote a song or wrote a poem in 1814 called “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The second myth, if you know a little bit more about “The Star-Spangled Banner” you might say, oh but it’s actually a British drinking song.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
WILLIAM ROBIN: This song goes back to the 1770s in Britain. The British part is true. What’s not really true is the pub song part.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
What’s important to understand about the history of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is that there’s a tradition in the English-speaking world between the 16th century and the 19th century of what’s called the broadside ballad, songs that folks knew would be re-texted with new lyrics. Sometimes these would be published in newspapers or in songsters, in collections of lyrics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wait a minute, don't we have our own broadside master?
[CLIP/"WEIRD AL" YANKOVIC SINGING “EAT IT”]:
…you'll just have yourself to blame
So eat it, just eat it.
WILLIAM ROBIN: [LAUGHS] No, absolutely, and it’s actually funny because the tradition was known as parities but parities weren’t necessarily always satirical. Sometimes it was about using a familiar song to talk about current-day events, to spread the news to this old song that they already knew.
In the 1770s, there was a society, a kind of gentleman's music and dinner club of men who met in London and would get together for a performance, about a two-hour symphony orchestra concert, followed by a dinner, followed by an evening of singing songs together. This was called the Anacreontic Society, named for the Greek poet Anacreon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
WILLIAM ROBIN: In between the dinner and the evening of singing, they commissioned John Stafford Smith, an English composer, to write what became known as “The Anacreontic Song.”
[CLIP/”THE ANACREONTIC SONG”]:
To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be;
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:
Voice, fiddle, and flute…
WILLIAM ROBIN: It’s a little bit on the bawdy side, but it’s not in any way a kind of drinking song.
And it was performed, actually, by a hired tenor who was a virtuoso, and that tune becomes widespread, first in the English culture and then it makes its way to the United States. So in the 1790s, there were texts published that were praising the French and saying that the Americans should come to the aid of the French during the French Revolution. In a kind of counterpart attack against that text, there was another text saying that we should hang the French ambassador.
[PIANO MUSIC/UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1798, Tom Paine’s son wrote a version in defense of President John Adams.
[CLIP/“ADAMS AND LIBERTY”]:
Her pride is her Adams;
His laws are her choice..
WILLIAM ROBIN: “Adams and Liberty” was very popular. Francis Scott Key would have known it. Francis Scott Key, himself, before writing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” actually wrote his own new lyrics to “The Anacreontic Song.”
When the warrior returns, from the battle afar,
To the home and the country he nobly defended…
[PIANO NOTES/UP & UNDER]
WILLIAM ROBIN: So Francis Scott Key, he writes these new lyrics towards the end of the War of 1812 against the British.
[CLIP/MAN SINGING “THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER”]:
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d…
WILLIAM ROBIN: The song does not become the official national anthem until 1931, and that’s really important because we have more than 100 years of this song being widely performed and popular as a kind of icon of American national identity but not necessarily our national anthem. Even after Francis Scott Key wrote this new text, there is a tradition of continuing to write new lyrics for the song.
[MAN SINGING UP & UNDER]
So an example of this is in 1844 an abolitionist newspaper published what they called a new version of the national song, with lyrics that castigated slavery and drew on Key’s words to change the meaning to emphasize the kind of irony and dissolution between the ideals of what Key’s text is talking about and the reality of slave ownership in the United States at that time.
[E.A. ATLEE’S “OH SAY, DO YOU HEAR?” ANTI-ABOLITIONIST CLIP]:
Oh, let us be just, ere in God we dare trust;
Else the day will o’er take us when perish we must;
And our star-spangled banner at half-mast shall wave
O’er the death-bed of Freedom -- the home of the slave.
WILLIAM ROBIN: “And our star-spangled banner at half-mast shall wave, over the death bed of freedom, the home of the slave.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This tradition of rewriting the song waned by the 20th century, right?
WILLIAM ROBIN: Yeah, so instead, we see the voicing of dissent in new musical forms. One of the most powerful precedents for Kaepernick’s protest is, of course, the Black Power sign being raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in support of the Black Power movement during the playing of the anthem at the 1968 Olympics. And, you know, a year after that the most kind of powerful follow-up to that is Jimi Hendrix's performance of “The Banner” at Woodstock in 1969.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
[CLIP/ JIMI HENDRIX PLAYING GUITAR SOLO]
The somber raising of the fist in 1968, the kneeling of Kaepernick, these are so somber, so much more so than rewriting the lyrics.
WILLIAM ROBIN: Remember, Kaepernick first started by sitting on the bench during the national anthem and then he and Reid spoke, actually, with a former Green Beret and talked about what the next step would be, in terms of this protest, and they decided to kneel. And Eric Reid says, I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark the tragedy.
I mean, it’s really a shame, the way that the meaning is being distorted, not only by the President but also by the way in which this issue around, you know, police violence against black communities has shifted towards being this kind of more general statement of solidarity on the part of the NFL.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kaepernick was so explicit about searching for and choosing the most respectful gesture he could.
WILLIAM ROBIN: Mm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the confusion over --
WILLIAM ROBIN: Yeah --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- what he is protesting brings in, you know, the age-old confusion over the meaning of patriotism, itself. I mean, I read his gesture as almost a prayerful effort --
WILLIAM ROBIN: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- to have America, as represented by the anthem or the flag, actually fulfill its promise.
WILLIAM ROBIN: In 1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. added an additional verse to the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the outbreak of war, at the beginning of secession of the Civil War: By the millions unchained who our birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.
And this was an aspirational addition that anticipated emancipation and was often frequently amended to the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the late 19th century, as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess “The Star-Spangled Banner” remains a symbol subject to scrutiny --
WILLIAM ROBIN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- and to alteration, for as long as it remains our anthem.
WILLIAM ROBIN: Absolutely, and I -- you know, as a musicologist, I acknowledge the fact that, you know, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not the greatest possible option for a national anthem, you know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, God!
WILLIAM ROBIN: It’s too hard to sing. It’s not the most attractive melody in the world. But, at the same time, I like to think it’s an interesting song. If we maybe spend a little bit more time unpacking this longer history in which the anthem has meant so many different things and represented so many different opportunities for voicing political dissent and, ultimately, voicing American citizenship, the idea that responding in some way to this anthem, as Colin Kaepernick has, as Jimi Hendrix has, is part of the kind of core of American identity, and this music was so mutable and changeable for such a long period of time before it settled into these traditions that are actually not nearly as old as we might think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will, thank you very much.
WILLIAM ROBIN: Thank you. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will Robin is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland and a contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times.