The Problem and Potential of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Drawing on his new book O Say Can You Hear?: A Cultural Biography of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” musicologist Mark Clague offers a historical perspective to help us make sense of today’s complexities surrounding the American national anthem, and how choruses might approach it.


A chorus brings the many voices of a community together in song. Yet when a choir is called upon to perform the U.S. national anthem today, divisions can be activated. Some singers may be inclined to kneel while performing or to remain backstage in protest. Other members can be deeply offended by any protest that disrupts the song’s expression of unity. Audiences, administrators, parents, donors, and other stakeholders add their own priorities to the mix.

A robust, open, and sincere conversation between director, singers, and staff offers a positive possibility to move forward—to answer the questions of if, when, and how to perform America’s anthem. Knowing the facts about the song, however, is critical to facilitating a productive dialogue. When it comes to “The Star-Spangled Banner” what most Americans know is more myth than history. The story of the anthem can be confusing, contradictory, and likewise inspiring. Understanding its complexity puts today’s controversies into context.

Partisan rancor is nothing new to the melody. In 1798, the song “Adams and Liberty” sounded a jingoistic bluster that proclaimed members of the new nation’s Federalist Party to be the only real and true Americans. Like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the song “Adams and Liberty” was written to a pre-existing melody. In fact, they used the same tune.

“Adams and Liberty” was hugely popular. One young Federalist who knew the song was the lawyer and gentleman poet Francis Scott Key. Inspired by the heroism of Americans defending Baltimore from British attack in 1814, Key crafted a new set of words to fit the well-known tune. Many Americans think he wrote a poem, later fit to music, but this is false.

Rather than a flash of inspiration, Key spent the better part of three days carefully crafting the lyric. The Battle of Baltimore was part of the War of 1812—what historians refer to as the nation’s Second War of Independence. It is thus no accident that the word “free” is set to the highest pitch in the repeated chorus. In the Internet age, Key’s full original text with its third verse including the word “slave” has come to public awareness. How could a song about freedom invoke a term pointing out the opposite?

I examine this issue in depth in my book and conclude that Key’s usage was likely to have been understood differently in 1814 than today. The third verse is an anti-British verse. It contrasts America’s heroic volunteer military, preserving home and country, with their opposite: the enemy soldiers of the British, motivated by money (not honor) and forced into battle as a vassal owing fealty to the British king. The British redcoat was thus both a “hireling” (paid soldier) and a “slave” (a subject fighting at the behest of a king).

That Key could use the word “slave” to refer primarily to white, male enemy soldiers at a time when Black Americans were in fact enslaved as captive labor reflects both his own—as well as the nation’s—misguided racial myopia. In 1814, only white males were citizens. Only white men had rights. What offers some balance to the story of Key’s song, however, is its subsequent use in the fight for freedom for all Americans. Abolitionists and Black Americans in 1814 would have recognized the bitter irony. For them, the word may well have invoked the Colonial Marines, liberated Black American men who fought valiantly for the British during the War of 1812.

A critical question concerning the meaning of music is whether it can change over time and in different contexts. For “The Star-Spangled Banner” the critical moment in its history—what made it the nation’s anthem in cultural practice—was the U.S. Civil War.

In the U.S. Civil War, the flag with its full complement of 34 stars became the sacred symbol of union. Its auditory equivalent—the song of the same name—became the rallying cry of the Union army. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed everywhere. It was sung to build public support and recruit volunteers. It was even performed by Union bands to inspire soldiers in battle. In this sense, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was later used to end slavery.

Protest is part of the anthem’s musical and social function. Hundreds of alternate lyrics, all long forgotten, were written to the tune arguing for nineteenth-century political causes, such as women’s suffrage, temperance, religious devotion, organized labor, and indeed the abolition of slavery. The song “Oh Say, Do You Hear” is an 1844 anti-slavery protest lyric that is written to paraphrase and thus draw attention to the fact that millions of Americans were in fact not free.

Patriotism and protest are mutually interdependent in U.S. history. You simply can’t have one without the other. If there were only one legal way to perform the U.S. national anthem, conforming to such strictures would express not love of country but obedience. The musical magic of the anthem is its expressive flexibility. It can be performed at somber military funerals, ecstatic Fourth of July parades, or in angry social protests—each time in very different emotional but no less patriotic variations.

The 1931 bill making Key’s song the official anthem of the United States simply recognized a status the song increasingly held in cultural practice following the U.S. Civil War. The bill is surprisingly brief. It states only that “the words and music known as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is the official national anthem of the United States of America.” This brevity avoided technical debate on a sanctioned musical arrangement, but also left the definition of the text uncertain. One could argue that Americans at best knew only the single opening verse. On the other hand, in 1931 sanctioned versions of Key’s song published by the U.S. government had three verses. The third of Key’s four original verses and thus the word “slave” were universally cut.

Making the removal of the third verse official would create a more inclusive anthem. Regardless of what it might have meant in 1814, the word “slave” is offensive to many Americans today and has no place in the nation’s anthem.

In American culture today, several strategies have been used to bring balance to the anthem’s story. One is to perform the Black American anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Others might substitute “American the Beautiful” for the nation’s official anthem in patriotic ritual.

As a historian I personally believe “The Star-Spangled Banner” still has a beneficial role to play today. It is a repository of history that helps us understand who we are as a nation and how we got here. Furthermore, by evoking the nation’s ideals, it also serves as a bellwether of equality. Performances of the nation’s anthem that express social dissonance rather than a unifying harmony thus serve as an alarm bell. At these times, the song signals that something is amiss, that an injustice needs to be resolved to bring the nation into harmony.

The best answer to the question that is “The Star-Spangled Banner” is an informed decision—made by the whole ensemble—that connects to the organization’s values and mission. The anthem is a call to participate in the democratic process. That Americans do not always agree with one another is not a flaw but a feature of democracy. Patriotic unity is not agreement. Unity is the shared commitment to work together to make the nation the best it can be. That’s that promise celebrated by singing the nation’s anthem.

Mark Clague serves as Professor of Musicology and Arts Leadership at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance in Ann Arbor. He is the author of O Say Can You Hear?: A Cultural Biography of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, (2022) as well as the Star Spangled Songbook (2015), a history of the anthem in sheet music, and its associated recording Poets & Patriots (2014).

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