'Star-Spangled Banner' arrangement donated to Fort McHenry

Charlene Robbins, far left, and Carmelle Knudsen, daughters of the man who owned this draft of the Star-Spangled Banner, give the document to curator Gregory Weidman at Fort McHenry.
Charlene Robbins, far left, and Carmelle Knudsen, daughters of the man who owned this draft of the Star-Spangled Banner, give the document to curator Gregory Weidman at Fort McHenry. (Gene Sweeney Jr. / The Baltimore Sun)

A key document in the transition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from popular song to national anthem is coming home to Fort McHenry.

A draft of the song's arrangement, drawn up in the early 20th century by a committee that included composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa, has been donated to the national monument and historic shrine by the woman whose father obtained it from his music teacher. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was adopted as the national anthem by an act of Congress in 1931.

"It's a huge document in the history of our country," said Elyse Luray, of the PBS TV series "History Detectives," who researched the document as part of the show and was in town Thursday for the donation ceremony. "It's an extraordinary, extraordinary document, and it's going back to the song's birthplace."

Charlene Robbins, whose father received the document in 1934 from a music teacher, said she and her sister briefly considered selling it, especially after hearing it was worth at least $10,000. But they knew their father, John Paul Clark, would have wanted it to be available to the public. He died in 2005.

"My father talked about wanting to donate it," said Robbins, who came to Baltimore with her husband and sister to hand the document over to Fort McHenry officials. "This is America's document. It isn't a Clark family document."

The poem, written by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the unsuccessful British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and set to the tune of a drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven," was already more than a century old when the committee was formed in 1917. Aware of the song's popularity and the patriotic fervor it evoked, President Woodrow Wilson, with the nation newly embroiled in World War I, asked the committee to sort through the myriad ways in which it was performed and settle on one version.

The draft document, handwritten by Pittsburgh music educator and committee Chairman Will Earhart, lists five different arrangements of the song, one proposed by each member of the committee. The group then voted on which version they preferred. That "majority version" is also included.

"There was a movement to actually try and get some sort of national anthem," said Luray, a New York-based appraiser who grew up in Baltimore. "It was sung in so many ways, they just wanted something to be standard."

Although the committee's findings have been detailed before, Luray said, this is the first working document from its deliberations to surface. "It's really giving you the thought process of what each of these people was thinking," she said.

Fort McHenry officials said the document would play a key role in the fort's continuing commemoration of the War of 1812, although they haven't yet decided on that role. While the paper is in excellent condition, putting it on permanent display and exposing it to light could cause it to deteriorate.

"We never put works on paper on exhibit for any extended period of time," said Gregory Weidman, the fort's curator.

The document first came to light when the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow" visited Eugene, Ore. In an episode broadcast Feb. 6, Robbins told how her father received it from his music teacher Arnold J. Gantvoort, who served on the original committee. On the show, it was assigned an appraised value of $10,000 to $15,000.

Luray said she believes the document was underappraised, primarily because no one realized how important it was. She placed its value at closer to $40,000.

Robbins and her sister, Carmelle Knudsen, had considered donating the document to the Library of Congress, Luray said. But she and the "History Detectives" helped persuade them to bring it to Baltimore, she said.

"I was born and raised here," Luray said by way of explanation. "It's going to the exact place where it belongs."


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