Whether "Baltimore — Birthplace of the Star-Spangled Banner" is destined to become the city's official motto, as the City Council recently endorsed, is less important than a troubling bit of information that arose during the council's debate over the matter. Polls suggest only about one in five people living in Baltimore know of the city's link to the national anthem and even fewer are aware of it outside this state.
This weekend's festivities may change that — although probably modestly so given that the PBS' Great Performances series doesn't exactly have the ratings of a "reality" TV show, let alone a major sporting event. That a 35-year-old lawyer named Francis Scott Key wrote a poem 200 years ago today as a tribute to what he had witnessed the day before — the day-long barrage of Fort McHenry by shells and rockets during what would later be known as the Battle of Baltimore — deserves greater recognition.
As national anthems go, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is not ideal. It's notoriously difficult to sing; the range required is too great and the lyrics too difficult for some to remember. The battle it commemorates is a forgotten one in a war about which there are ambivalent feelings. At best, the War of 1812 reaffirmed American independence. It is a conflict upstaged in the history books by the Revolutionary War before it and the Civil War after.
But that is no excuse for the average denizen of this city to know the national anthem only as the song in which one expresses pride in the Baltimore Orioles baseball team by shouting, "O!" in the second-to-last verse, as in, "O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave." The Star-Spangled Banner is Baltimore's. It was written here. The battle it commemorates was fought here. Even the giant flag that Key saw that day was created here by a 29-year-old widow named Mary Young Pickersgill. It ought to be as closely identified with Charm City as steamed crabs and cold beer.
Americans sing this song frequently, but do they listen closely to it? The tune itself is a hand-me-down, derived from an uplifting, slightly bawdy little ditty called the "The Anacreontic Song" written for an exclusive gentleman's club (a place for the affluent to drink and sing, mostly) in London and adapted frequently by others including in America. Mr. Key's words are what really matter. After the devastating bombardment he had witnessed, he was obviously stunned to see the young nation's flag still flying the morning of Sept. 14.
This is why the anthem can still inspire, not merely because it celebrates a little-known battle in an often-forgotten war but because it speaks to the American character. We overcome the adversity thrown at us, we persevere, we stand united, we do not retreat in the face of danger and we should be grateful for our blessings. "O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand/Between their loved home and the war's desolation," the author's infrequently heard fourth verse observes. "Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land/Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!"