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U-M professor debunks famous 'Star-Spangled Banner' myths

By Sydney Hawkins

U-M Men's Glee Club performs "Seven Last Words of the Unarmed"

One of the nation’s foremost experts on “The Star-Spangled Banner” is Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

Clague is the founding board chair of the Star Spangled Music Foundation and editor and producer of the “Star Spangled Songbook” and its associated recording project “Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.'”

He¬†recently added to his popular “Banner Mythconception” essay series debunking common misunderstandings surrounding “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Francis Scott Key, the lawyer and poet who wrote the anthem’s lyrics.

Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance

Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance

MYTH #1: Francis Scott Key was held prisoner aboard a British ship during the bombardment of Baltimore. Correction: Key was aboard his own American truce ship during the battle.

MYTH #2: Key drafted “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the back of an envelope or letter. Correction: Most likely, Key wrote his draft on a clean sheet of paper using pen and ink.

MYTH #3: Key wrote a “poem” later set to music by someone else. Correction: “The Star-Spangled Banner” was always conceived of by Key as a song and he wrote his “lyric” to fit a specific melody of his own choosing.

MYTH #4: Key’s Banner is based on the melody of a bawdy old English drinking song.¬†Correction: “The Anacreontic Song” was the constitutional anthem of an elite, London-based, amateur music society…but it gets complicated.

MYTH #5: “The Star-Spangled Banner” as baseball’s game day ritual begins with Babe Ruth and the 1918 World Series. Correction: The earliest documented performance of Key’s Banner in pro sports was on opening day at a baseball game in 1862.

MYTH #6: A 1931 act of Congress made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official anthem of the United States. Correction: This is absolutely correct in terms of the anthem’s legal status, but the bill approved by the House and Senate and signed by President Herbert Hoover simply recognized what had been true in American cultural practice for decades.

MYTH #7: There is a sanctioned traditional or otherwise official version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Correction: The 1931 act making Key’s song America’s anthem does not identify an official arrangement, in part because the song as sung in the 20th century had already departed from what Key had known. During World War I, attempts were made to codify the arrangement, resulting in both a military “Service Version” and a “Standardized Version” endorsed by the Department of Education.

MYTH #8: A mug shot offers proof of composer Igor Stravinsky’s arrest by the Boston Police for desecrating a national symbol after conducting a performance of his own arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the Boston Symphony. Correction: The well-known image is thus not associated with an arrest at all, but it is true that Stravinsky’s anthem was controversial. The supposed mug shot is actually part of Stravinsky’s 1940 visa application for residence in the United States.


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