On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress authorized a brand-new flag – the Stars and Stripes – for a brand-new nation, the United States of America. Though President Woodrow Wilson established June 14 as Flag Day with an official proclamation in 1916, it was not until 1949 that June 14 was established as National Flag Day by an Act of Congress and signed into law by President Harry Truman. By the time Flag Day was officially established, some of our country’s most well-known patriotic music had been written.
Most of us know the story of Francis Scott Key being inspired to write the lyrics for The Star-Spangled Banner while watching the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. But did you know that the melody for our national anthem comes from the British song To Anacreon in Heaven (“The Anacreontic Song”)? The song was recognized for official use by the Navy in 1889, and in 1931 became the national anthem through a congressional resolution signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.
During World War I, the War Department established a standard arrangement to be used by U.S. military bands. This arrangement is sometimes used for civilian use, but there is no official version of the anthem for nonmilitary use. As we’ve all no doubt experienced, its one-and-a-half octave range makes it a tricky melody to sing, and its lyrics have been known to trip up more than one celebrity performer.
The Stars and Stripes Forever is the official march of the U.S.A. Written by John Philip Sousa on Christmas Day in 1896, the song was an instant hit and the Sousa Band played it at almost every concert until his death over 25 years later.
The piece is usually played for the President of the United States after he gives a speech, but it has quite a different use in show business. In the circus it’s known as “The Disaster March.” It is never programmed as part of the performance, but is only played as a code to signal an emergency such as a fire or an animal on the loose. It serves as a warning signal to circus personnel without panicking the audience.
If you hear “Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s mother…” the moment a band strikes up The Stars and Stripes Forever, you’re not alone. Sousa wrote lyrics to The Stars and Stripes Forever, but “Three cheers for the red, white and blue” and “Be kind to your web-footed friends” are most definitely not his.
You’re a Grand Old Flag was written by George M. Cohan for his musical George Washington, Jr. It was first performed in public at the show’s opening night in 1906 and became the first song from a musical to sell over a million copies of sheet music.
As the story goes, Cohan met a Civil War veteran who was holding a ragged American flag. The man commented to Cohan that “She’s a grand old rag.” Cohan promptly wrote the song and entitled it “You’re a Grand Old Rag” but was met with such an outcry from the American public that he “gave ‘em what they wanted” and changed the word to “‘flag.”
These are three of our favorite “American flag pieces.” Did we miss yours? Tell us in the comments.