Culture  /  Book Review

Our Flag Was Still There

In his comprehensive study of the national anthem, a historian and musicologist examines our complicated relationship to a famously challenging song.

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Whitney Houston performs the "The Star Spangled Banner" at the 1991 Super Bowl.

Contrary to myth — again! — the lyrics were not later set to the tune of a drinking chantey. In fact, Key wrote his lines to fit the popular, pre-existing “Anacreontic Song.” As musical scores were difficult to print, alternative lyrics to known melodies were the primary means of disseminating music. This one had been commissioned by a musical London gentlemen’s club; composer John Stafford Smith had crafted a challenging tune designed to allow soloists to show off their virtuosity. (Belize was more right than he knew.) There were countless lyrics set to the melody, one of America’s first viral sensations.

The rise of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from popular hit to de facto and then official national anthem is, naturally, tied up in war. It became immensely popular in the North during the Civil War, and thus forbidden by the Confederacy, which rejected both the song and the flag. Union prisoners sang it to raise their spirits in Southern camps, and Union brass bands — playing in combat! — deployed it to rally the troops. By World War I, Americans were expressing fervor for the song whether they felt it or not. Geraldine Farrar, a singer with connections to Germany, became the object of fury when she remained seated during the playing of the anthem, perhaps the first American to be threatened with professional extinction for not performing the required genuflection. Soon, she too was belting out the anthem in concert, literally wrapped in a flag.

Colin Kaepernick, the latest prominent American to be punished for not demonstrating the required devotion, gets surprisingly little attention here, but that’s only because he is far from the only athlete to suffer for his heresy. The sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were thrown out of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 for daring to raise their fists during their own medal ceremony, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, of the Denver Nuggets, was suspended by the N.B.A. in 1996 — not because he knelt or raised a fist or finger while the anthem played but simply because he remained in the locker room. After the uproar, he agreed to come out and bow his head, but that wasn’t enough to calm outrage; he was out of the league within two years (with a brief return in 2000) and, to date, has not starred in a Nike ad.

While he details these many instances, Clague has no patience for anyone who demands such reverence from others, and he’s no fan of the jingoistic military displays that often accompany performances at major public events. But he reveres the anthem itself, and he makes the strongest case for the song in his detailed analysis of what he calls its most successful modern rendition, Whitney Houston’s performance at the 1991 Super Bowl.