The centennial of The Star-Spangled Banner brought a renewed interest in the song and the story of how it came to be written. Though the United States would not enter World War I until 1916, the conflict in Europe was on the minds of Americans everywhere and the knowledge that they may soon become embroiled in a foreign conflict loomed over them.
Though the song did not have an official national presence, it had remained famous and its writing a point of strong interest to the public.
In the year 1914, Amelia Fowler was employed to restore the original Fort McHenry flag to its original glory. At the time, the flag was shredded and decayed, but Fowler used her own patented techniques to fix patch the flag so that it appeared as close to its original form as possible. Now referred to as the “Star-Spangled Banner Flag,” it was again restored in 1998 and stands on display at the National Museum of American History.
The song The Star-Spangled Banner began to be revered even more at the time of its centennial. Here you can listen to a recording of the piece performed in September of 1914 at a celebration of its writing. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ordered than The Star-Spangled Banner be played at all military occasions; another step forward for the song toward its eventual fate as the national anthem. Two years later, the 1918 World Series, marred by a gambling scandal, would become the first baseball event in which the song was played.
It was not until 1929, however, that strong support for choosing a national anthem began to approach the tipping point. In a syndicated edition of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Robert Ripley wrote: “Believe it or not, the United States has no national anthem!” There were many opinions about what song should be chosen, but the voice of the nation’s most famous composer of the time stood above the rest. John Philip Sousa, king of the American March, called the song “soul stirring” and voiced his support for the campaign to make The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem. In 1931, 117 years after it was written, Herbert Hoover signed a law making The Star-Spangled Banner our national anthem.
Since it was made the national anthem, the song has been performed countless times in hundreds of styles by more people than we can guess. Some of those renditions were greatly celebrated in their time, while others caused great controversy. One such instance came in 1968, when Jose Feliciano played a soulful, blues style version of the banner to open the fifth game of the World Series. At the time, the nation was embroiled in controversy over the Vietnam War, and many saw the performance as disrespectful. Normally an uplifting song, his mournful tone told the tale of a war-weary nation still clinging to its idea of freedom, but uncertain that its leaders felt the same way. To many, it perfectly encapsulated the climate of the times.
Perhaps a more famous and equally controversial rendition was played by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969. Just a listen will tell you why many traditionalists despised his rendition, but many consider it to be one of the most apt performances of the piece. Just as Feliciano’s rendition epitomized the fatigue and uncertainty of the time, Hendrix’s version captured the tumultuous climate of the anti-war protests and the abject violence being broadcast from overseas.
The lasting legacy of The Star-Spangled Banner, though, is in its ability to change its meaning while still encapsulating the American spirit. It stands for the resilience of the American Republic and, in that respect, remains the perfect anthem. In this country, the glaring red rockets are not always launched from ships. Sometimes, they are insurrections from within, sometimes they are injustices long entrenched in society, and sometimes they are our own planes used to murder innocents.
Through these, though, and many other hardships that have destroyed nations in the past, the United States has endured, as has its national anthem. From a short poem written by a nervous young lawyer to the anthem of the most powerful nation in the world, The Star-Spangled Banner has stood the test of time. It continues to be sung from coast to coast, brightening the hearts of those who struggle for what America stands for. It is a piece that epitomizes the American spirit; this nation, still dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, deserves no less.
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
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