'Star-Spangled Summer' celebrates 200th birthday of national anthem
For 25 nightmarish hours, on a night described today by a historian as “rainy and kind of spooky,” the fate of our young nation seemed to play out in a pyrotechnic display in the skies.
Up to 1,500 bombs unrelentingly assaulted the American defenders at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, an experience later said to be likened to feeling like “pigeons hung upside down waiting for the next shell to come in.”
The whistling and whining of huge 200-pound shells sparkling through the air, flying rockets delivered as terror weapons had to be exceedingly frightening, says Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society and author of “Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake” and “Pennsylvania's Forbes Trail.”
The quest to remain free and independent, though, proved more powerful as the fort's occupants outlasted their would-be conquerors, holding their ground. By morning, Sept. 14, 1814, the British withdrew.
“It was such a moment all over the city,” Kummerow says. “People said, ‘We can see the flag! All these bombs didn't make any difference!' ”
Watching from his own shipboard vantage point, anchored on a tributary, Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key was moved to take pen in hand, write down what he had witnessed and share his reflections on what it all might mean for the fledgling country.
Two hundred years later, those words — penned at the conclusion of the Battle of Baltimore and chronicling a most dramatic turning point in the War of 1812 — continue to speak for generations as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States of America.
Key's original, hand-written manuscript is housed at the Maryland Historical Society. But from June 14 through July 6, it will be displayed for the first time at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., along with the 42-foot by 30-foot flag, also known as the Star-Spangled Banner, that flew over Fort McHenry on that fateful day and inspired Key's words.
“Star-Spangled Summer,” honoring the 200th anniversary of the national anthem's writing, brings American history to life with special events and exhibitions throughout Baltimore this summer.
Landmark observances like this afford the opportunity to look back on where we have been, where we are and where we may be headed, Kummerow says.
Any time we sing the national anthem is a moment in time for important reflection, he says. “It becomes sort of the clarion call for everybody to pay attention and to contemplate why the country is important to them,. The country was in danger of coming off the tracks (during the War of 1812).”
Then came Key's plea, in his four verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” originally called “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” for the future of the nation.
Though it was not officially recognized as the national song until 1931, it became extraordinarily popular during Key's lifetime and was performed at inaugurals and patriotic events.
“I wish more people understood it is an anthem of release. We came very close to being shut down as a country,” says musicologist David Hildebrand, director of the Colonial Music Institute in Severna Park, Md. “The anthem's message is, ‘Thank God we weren't conquered, the flag is still flying, we have not surrendered or lost the war.”
He and his musician wife, Ginger Hildebrand, who have served as consultants on PBS projects, have performed Colonial music for more than 30 years, including presentations at Pittsburgh's Senator John Heinz History Center, Fort Pitt and for the Braddock Road Commission.
They both appear in “Anthem,” the one-hour PBS documentary, independently made by the Maryland-based Make Your Mark Media, which tells the story behind Francis Scott Key's creation of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” attempts to clear-up popular inaccuracies and explores the role of music and patriotism during the War of 1812. (It can be found online at www.mpt.org/anthem.)
It wasn't until after the War of 1812 that we began calling ourselves Americans, rather than Marylanders and Pennsylvanians, and Key's writing played a significant role in that, says filmmaker Mark Hildebrand, David's brother, producer and director of “Anthem.”
It was a sign of unity and common purpose,” Mark Hildebrand says. “Key wrote about the flag of our nation. The song is about America. It is a national song and spread quickly to all corners of our young country. Everybody could sing it and feel pride as Americans.”
We may be the only nation where the flag and anthem have the same title, says David Hildebrand. “The anthem is a song about the flag. It couldn't be more intimately related.”
It's quite appropriate, he says, that we have maintained essentially the same flag for 240 years, and that we have agreed on the same anthem for at least the past 100 years.
People throughout the world have an inherent need for a unifying figure or symbol, says journalist and author Marc Leepson. For Americans, he says, it has become the flag and the anthem.
“Americans have an almost religious-like feeling for the flag,” says Leepson, who was a guest curator at the Heinz History Center's Stars & Stripes exhibit in 2011-12.
The Virginia resident's next book, “What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life,” is the first biography of Key in more than 75 years. It is being published in time for Flag Day on June 14.
Those who lobby that “America the Beautiful” or perhaps “This Land Is Your Land,” would be a better option for a national anthem invariably change their minds once they understand the story behind “The Star-Spangled Banner,” its history and “what those words mean,” Mark Hildebrand says.
When the anthem is sung and played as the flag is raised, Mark Hildebrand says that aural and visual union can be one of the most powerful moments anyone can experience. In times of national tragedy, such as 9/11, or impending war, the emotion evoked can be quite raw.
Power of music
The Maryland Historical Society's Burt Kummerow has seen what symbols representing our national identity mean to people.
“They can get real quiet as they stand in the flag chamber and watch,” he says. “When they see Francis Scott Key's original manuscript, there are people who cry. It is amazing how touching these things can be for people.
“These icons, such as the national anthem, are great, great touchstones that say, ‘We are all together, we are a nation and we should recognize its ideals and what it stands for.”
Nationally known flag collector and lecturer Dr. Peter Keim, a former Natrona Heights physician, recalls that people stood at the windows and wept at a showcase of his flags, considered in some circles as the most comprehensive collection in the United States, in New York for the first anniversary of 9/11.
“The anthem and the flag are the tuned story and fabric of our nation,” says Keim, who was guest curator at the Heinz History Center's Stars & Stripes exhibit. and is on the board of directors of the National Flag Foundation. He and his son, Kevin Keim, authored “A Grand Old Flag,” (DK, 2008) a history of the United States through its flags.
“When you are traveling abroad and see the Stars and Stripes or hear ‘The Star Spangled Banner,' you feel at home … and safe,” Keim says. “When we hear the anthem or sing it, we recognize it as our expression of being Americans.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Baltimore, with more than 10 sites with direct connections to the War of 1812, is the focal point of “Star-Spangled Summer.” The bicentennial of the writing of the national anthem features “Fort! Flag! Fire!” at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, beginning June 28, and special events and exhibits citywide through the summer starting June 13.
The tribute culminates Sept. 10 to 16 with “Star-Spangled Spectacular,” a free celebration presenting living-history demonstrations, tall ships, Navy gray hulls, an air show by the Navy's Blue Angels and a star-studded patriotic concert and fireworks display over Fort McHenry and the Baltimore harbor Sept. 13.
“By Dawn's Early Light” will be held Sept. 14, the birthday of the anthem, at the morning flag-raising ceremony at Fort McHenry.
• A free, 18-month traveling festival, launched in 2013, continues this summer along the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, which commemorates the War of 1812 and its legacy in the Chesapeake region. More than 560 miles of land and water routes in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia follow movements of British and American troops during a period of political and social unrest that forever change a young democratic nation. Details: www.starspangledtrail.net
• “A Star-Spangled Story: Battle for America,” an original one-hour documentary about the creation of Francis Scott Key's anthem will air at 9 p.m. June 14 on the Smithsonian Channel.
• Pittsburghers are invited to add their voice June 14, Flag Day, in Point State Park to what is being billed as “the largest group sing of the national anthem in history.” Fort Pitt Museum staff and colonial re-enactors will gather around a 36-foot American flag in Point State Park, to lead the signing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at about 4 p.m. The event is part of a national “Anthem for America” initiative led by the Smithsonian Institution, which asks everyone to “add their voice across the country and the world.” Details: anthemforamerica.smithsonian.com