Next Sunday, March 3, marks the 60th anniversary of our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." I'll bet you thought that the song was more than 60 years old - and it is. But it was officially adopted as our national anthem by the U.S. Congress and President Herbert Hoover on March 3, 1931.
The words were composed during the War of 1812 by a lawyer from Washington, D.C., named Francis Scott Key, whose involvement in the whole matter was quite accidental. Key had been persuaded by several friends of a physician named William Beanes, who had become a prisoner of war, to negotiate with the British Navy for the release of the doctor. Beanes had - for some reason - been picked up by soldiers off the streets of Washington during a British assault on the city that had resulted in the burning of the White House, the Capitol and other public buildings. He was taken back to the British naval ships that had blockaded Chesapeake Bay, and it is there that Francis Scott Key went to obtain his release.Well, the talks were courteous and an agreement was reached, but there happened to be other talks under way at the same time, on that same ship, and these concerned the battle plans for that night's attack on Baltimore and on Ft. McHenry, which guarded the city. The British didn't know how much of their plans Key and Beanes had overheard, and so they detained the Americans until after the battle had commenced.
From here on the story is, or should be, rather well known by all American school children. Key was so taken by the bombardment he witnessed from the deck of the ship that night (the British lobbed more than 1,800 bombs and rockets into and around the fort) and he was so stirred upon seeing the American flag still flying over the fort at daybreak, that he hastily composed several verses of a poem on the back of a letter or an envelope he found in his pocket. That poem, which appeared shortly thereafter in a Baltimore newspaper under the title "The Defense of Fort McHenry," became the words for what we know as "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The war in the Persian Gulf has made the playing and singing of our national anthem more common than just at the beginning of sporting events. Many children know the words but have little understanding of what some of those words mean. Parents can help put some of the meaning and flavor back into this song by telling their children how the anthem came to be written. (Be sure they see that the event, and the War of 1812, took place only about 40 years after the Revolution, and so our fledgling nation could easily have come under British rule once again if Ft. McHenry had fallen.)
Recite the anthem to them like a poem, and translate for them the following words and phrases:
The Star-Spangled Banner - "spangled" means adorned with shining or glittering objects; sequins, for example, are spangles.
What so proudly we hailed - "hailed" means cheered for or applauded.
O'er the ramparts we watched - "o'er" is the one-syllable, poetic pronunciation of the word "over"; "ramparts" are protective barriers, in this case the walls of Ft. McHenry.
The bombs bursting in air - explosives weren't actually dropped from above until 1849 (from balloons), and so this early use of "bombs" refers to mortar shells that were launched over the walls from the ground.