Book Review: “O Say Can You Hear? A Cultural Biography of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, by Mark Clague

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O DIS CAN YOU HEAR? A cultural biography of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Mark Clague


Mark Clague knows all about “The Star-Spangled Banner,” including what you think.

He knows all the homage, genuine and forced, and he’s read all the criticism of the National Anthem’s jingoism, its triumphant militarism, and the inclusion in its original lyrics of the word “slave,” but not the word “America.” “. In fact, his knowledge of the song’s history and its uses, benign and otherwise, is so comprehensive that I was surprised he didn’t name my favorite, delivered by Belize in “Angels in America.” , when he claims that the slave owner who wrote the national anthem “knew what he was doing. He put the word ‘free’ on such a high note that no one can reach it. It was deliberate.

Clague, associate professor of musicology and American culture at the University of Michigan, has produced a work so encyclopedic that its chapters can be read according to your inclination – if you are most interested in, say, what the anthem represented for African Americans, skip to Chapter 8, “The Anthem and Black Lives Matter.” But I recommend reading them in order, as it also proves the book’s thesis: that, contrary to popular myth, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not forced upon Americans by some imperious authority, but chosen by us, en masse and over decades. When Congress proclaimed the song America’s official national anthem in 1931, nearly 120 years after it was composed, it was acknowledging a battle that had been won long before. The question, which this immensely interesting and readable story sets out to answer, is how this victory was achieved.

The lyrics were composed by lawyer, politician and amateur poet Francis Scott Key while he was being held prisoner by the British in Baltimore harbor during the War of 1812. The British, having already burned much of Washington , DC, had turned to Baltimore. The British Navy had brought its most terrifying weapons, the “bombers” – those “bombs that burst in the air” – and if Fort McHenry were to be neutralized, British troops would freely enter Baltimore and surely burn it.

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