O Say Can You Hear? A Cultural Biography of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Norton. Jun. 2022. 352p. ISBN 9780393651386. $28.95. MUSIC
Clague (musicology and American culture, Univ. of Michigan) writes a historical and cultural account of the United States national anthem, which through wars and peace, civil and cultural unrest, and on battlefields and ballfields, has played an (ahem) key role in the national consciousness since Francis Scott Key penned his four (yes, four) verses after experiencing the Siege of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. As Clague recounts, the anthem has famously been sung by Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin—and infamously by Rosanne Barr; been orchestrated by Stravinsky; and been performed as an electric guitar solo at Woodstock by Jimi Hendrix. Clague reveals that (thought Key deserves credit for the anthem’s lyric imagery) rarely is it acknowledged that the melody was composed by Englishman John Stafford Smith, who composed the tune as the club anthem for a music fraternity in London and published it under the title “The Anacreontic Song.” Clague does an excellent job tracing the tune back to its origin while detailing the way it entered the nation’s consciousness and has been used as a societal bellwether ever since, having both united people and created divisions. It’s a fascinating and enlightening story, well told here.
VERDICT An excellent and comprehensive history of the music and lyrics of the United States’ national anthem, Clague’s book should be in every library.
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