Q: What are the origins of America’s national anthem?
A: The American national anthem is, I think, a song that people around the world are aware of, but people don’t know much about the history of how The Star-Spangled Banner came to be.
The lyrics come from Defence of Fort McHenry, a poem written by Francis Scott Key and inspired by the battle of Baltimore [aka the War of 1812].
The War of 1812 is a conflict that few people are even aware of. People – particularly Americans – think of independence as being won in 1776, but independence from the British was not actually completed until 1814.
I’m American, but a long-time resident in Britain. I have always known that Americans are much more attached to their flag than I think is true of many other nations. I think this is because it is built on a set of ideals: it was a vision of democracy; the radical idea that all men were created equal. What united Americans? Their flag.
Controversy has surrounded the singing of the anthem – some oppose the fact it is a militaristic anthem, and have taken issue with the way it is performed. For example, Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock [in 1969].
Q: What is America’s relationship with its anthem?
A: America is very attached to its national anthem.
What makes the US unique really is that it was a nation created by a disparate group of people who wanted to build a country based on a set of ideals. Of course, there were already people living in the continental US, but we are talking mainly about Europeans who came to the ‘New World’, asking how they could unite themselves.
I think what still brings people together today is the American flag. I was back in the US for six weeks recently, and I saw the flag everywhere – shopping malls, government buildings, homes. It was striking.
The national anthem refers to the flag – the two are inextricably linked. Just as the flag is seen everywhere, the anthem is sung on all sorts of occasions – for example, at the beginning of the Super Bowl. I think that is part of the reason the anthem is so entrenched in the public consciousness.
Plus, it’s actually considered quite difficult to sing, which makes it memorable. People are always listening to see if celebrities tasked with singing it do a good job, or whether they lip sync. [For example, Beyoncé at Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2013.]
Q: Francis Scott Key wrote Defence of Fort McHenry in 1814, but The Star-Spangled Banner only became the official national anthem in 1931. Why the wait?
A: The country had got along perfectly well without a national anthem. It was only when Robert L Ripley pointed out in 1929 that America didn’t have an official anthem that people started demanding one.
Interestingly, this was just after the great stock market crash that brought the country into the Great Depression. It’s hard not to think that the two might be linked.
Q: Why do you think people know so little about the battle of Baltimore?
A: I think in the study of history bigger events tend to overshadow others – people can only take in so much.
Americans do, however, know about the War of Independence – they know who sewed the first flag [Betsy Ross], and about Mary Pickersgill, the maker of the Star Spangled Banner flag hoisted over Fort McHenry during the battle of Baltimore. [The banner now hangs in the Smithsonian.]
The history of America’s national anthem was explored in a 2014 BBC Radio 4 documentary, O Say Can You See?, available on BBC iPlayer to listen now.
This interview was first published by History Extra in July 2014