Yet another singer has fallen in the battle against the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner. This time it was Aaron Lewis before game 5 of the 2014 World Series. I’m not here to pass judgement on him, but to give my opinion about why so many people stumble over the words.
For one thing, there’s John Stafford Smith’s repeated melody at the beginning. “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light” isn’t hard to remember, because it’s the beginning of the song. So even though its melody sounds like “Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,” we usually make it through the first line. Where most people get in trouble is either the second or fourth line, which also sound like each other. So, as with Lewis, “What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,” can turn into “O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.” Or sometimes we hear a mix and match of those two lines. “O’er the ramparts we hailed, were so gallantly gleaming?” Huh?
Compare that with God Bless America’s ever-changing melody, and you can see why Irving Berlin’s God Bless America is not the one famous for bringing down multi-platinum stars.
1. Oh 2. What 3. Whose 4. O’er
The other reason I think The Star-Spangled Banner is hard to memorize is that Francis Scott Key’s poetry is not a linear story like most of the songs people these days are used to. And The Star-Spangled Banner was first a poem. Many of its sentences are reversed, and like much literature, it starts with the end of the story. If we can understand what happened in the battle at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, 1813, we can better remember the lyrics.
1. Evening. We proudly hailed the flag at twilight’s last gleaming. (It has broad stripes and bright stars which gallantly stream.)
2. Nighttime. The rockets have a red glare. Bombs are bursting in air. Their light gives proof that our flag is still there. (Historical note, it might be the fort’s “storm flag” we’re talking about here.)
3. Morning. The dawn’s early light! Say, can you see our flag? Yay!
So, you see, the song starts at the end of the story, goes immediately to the beginning of the story in the second line, then hits the middle and the end again, much like many classic novels. When I first heard the song as a child, it seemed a jumble of random words like the mysterious “donzerly.” What was donzerly light?! Something very American, I was sure. Now that I know the story of Fort McHenry, (I encourage you to read more about it) I have a fighting chance in the battle against the infamously difficult lyrics of our national anthem.
Here are the lyrics to the verse that is always sung: