Why Teach “The Star Spangled Banner” Today?—It’s Who We Are

PrintOn the occasion of the 199th birthday of the US national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I thought it’d be worth taking some time to reflect on the meaning of the song and specifically the question of why it’s important for K-12 education in the U.S.A.

My students at the University of Michigan tease me a bit about my obsession. But my fascination comes to me honestly: when I was a kid my father dragged this unappreciative son to seemingly every American Revolution and Civil War battlefield between Michigan, Maine, St. Augustine, and San Antionio, during our annual summer driving trips around the nation. I protested, but something apparently took root. I also vividly recall decorating my Schwinn banana-seat bicycle —  my personal pride — in red, white, and blue streamers with a flag on the back to join our neighborhood U.S. bicentennial parade on July 4, 1976. I was nine. It’s not a surprise then that I like bicentennials and, beside, you don’t get many—so the anthem’s own 200th birthday seems to hold a similarly deep, personal connection for me. And I don’t think I’m alone…

Me setting off to the parade on July 4, 1976 (courtesy of my mom!)

Me setting off to the parade on July 4, 1976 (courtesy of my mom!)

I think every American has similarly wonderful personal connections to the anthem — memories of summer days at the ballpark or other events with pageantry and pomp — but celebrating of our own personal identity is only one reason to sing the song—maybe the best reason, but still just one among many.

What I’ve discovered in spending so much time with literally hundreds upon hundreds of Banner renditions and many dozens of alternate lyrics to the tune of Anacreon is that our anthem offers a window into the nation and how it came to be. These songs offer a series of revealing snapshots of crisis points in American history. They record not only events, but the feelings of the poet at witnessing an historic event — such as the Battle of Baltimore which turned the course of the War of 1812 — or at confronting a problem of national scope and vision — say the legal status of alcohol or slavery. Party politics and presidential elections likewise spring to life in lyrics such as “The Glorious Fourteenth of July” or “Harrison and Liberty.” One also sees the burgeoning sense of nation and indelible pride in the words of countless citizen poets whose names are now all-but-lost to history, but for a lyric printed in a neglected newspaper.

Studying “The Star-Spangled Banner” showcases the power of music in our lives, not only as a reflection or symbol, but as a tool for living— a vehicle of conceptual transformation that shapes our ideas and relationships and inspires action. To understand the story of the anthem, is to explore the development of the nation — not only through events and  people, but the aspirations and ideals that propelled our democracy. In the classroom, discussing the Banner brings up vital issues of citizenship, who we are, where we came from, who gets to be a citizen and why, who wasn’t a citizen in the past and how that changed, what citizenship means for us today? These are vital questions and they are no less vital today than when Key penned his lyric.

I’m pleased to serve as board chair of the Star Spangled Music Foundation (see www.starspangledmusic.org) and to be working with great colleagues to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” loud and proud with an ear to both the nation’s past and its future.

Note: this post is the first in a series of 199th birthday tributes to be published over the next month. Check back for more!

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About usmusicscholar

I am an Associate Professor of Musicology, American Culture and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
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