Friday, July 4, 2014
Occasionally, I hear a satirical radio commentator who begins his daily musing with “You know what makes me sick?” The editorialist then launches into a diatribe regarding his peeve of the day.
Not wishing to be accused of plagiarism, do you know what makes me sick?
As of late (defined by the advent of the know-it-all internet), it seems that every time the National Anthem is played, at least one person will exclaim at the end “Did you know the tune is an old English drinking song?”. Typically, this tidbit of can’t-live-without information is delivered with an air of superiority balanced with utter disgust at such a lack of Yankee creativity
Before, all you could do was to roll your eyes and nod your head. Until now…
As we observe our Independence from England today, let’s take a look at a couple of American anthems.
The song “America” also known as “My Country ‘tis of Thee” is another one which gets a bad rap. Invariably, there will be someone who proclaims; “The tune is the same as ‘God Save the King’!” And right you are. It is also the same tune as the German anthem “God Bless Our Native Land”. Let’s take a look at this song.
Samuel Francis Smith, a young student at Boston’s Andover Theological Seminary, had been asked by the well-known composer of the day; Lowell Mason, to translate several German song books. One number in particular had quite an impact upon Smith; “God Bless Our Native Land”, which, incidentally, was set to the melody of “God Save Our King”.
He then set about writing lyrics to an original American patriotic song. “America” was first performed on July 4, 1831 by a Boston children’s choir.
Smith hoped to convey the history of America (“Land where my fathers died/Land of the Pilgrim’s pride”) as well as her natural beauty and wonder (“I love thy rocks and rills/ thy woods and templed hills”)
This song became a tremendous success, and was considered the unofficial anthem of the United States until 1931 when “The Star Spangled Banner” was adopted as such.
Which leads me to another song…
Most readers are familiar with the background for Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defense of Fort McHenry”. The British fleet had moved into Baltimore Harbor in September of 1814. They had just come from a rollicking good time (for them) of burning the United States Capital, the United States Treasury, and the President’s residence; along with major portions of Washington, D.C. Feeling somewhat emboldened by their latest escapade, what better place to inflict insult and injury than to Baltimore? Somehow or another, a friend of Key’s had been sequestered upon an English warship in Baltimore harbor. Key, in a effort to negotiate his friend’s release, asked to come aboard the British ship. After nearly a week of haggling, the English agreed to free Key and his friend.
There was just one little hitch; the two Americans had become aware of the English plans to attack the fort, and thus the city. While technically free, they were interred aboard an American ship under British watch, until after the hostilities began. They were unable to communicate with the fort, as there were means to communicate. Perhaps they could have used pig-Latin with semaphore flags; “Atch-way the Itish-Bray” but the chances were the recipient would just think someone was goofing around with the flags.
On the night of September 13, 1814, the English warships opened fire upon Fort McHenry. From the vantage point of a ship’s deck, it appeared as though the fort was being reduced to rubble by shot and shell. Throughout the night, Key agonized over the fate of the fort, the city, and the young nation.
However, when dawn broke on September 14th, the star spangled banner still floated over the fort; not the English Union Jack. The Americans had won the Battle of Baltimore. Key and his friend were free to go. He set his thoughts to poetic verse. It was then decided to adapt the lyrics to a popular song at the time known by either “Adams or Liberty”, or its original name “The Anacreontic Song” the official ballad of the Anacreontic Society. At this point, the reader is slapping their forehead, while exclaiming “Of course! How silly of me to have not noticed that!”
The Anacreontic Society was an 18th Century organization of London’s doctors, barristers, bankers and such, who all shared the common interest of being amateur composers. The melody is attributed to John Stafford Smith, who wrote the tune to fit lyrics penned by the Society’s president; Ralph Tomlinson. The compilation was completed in the mid 1760's. Due to the catchy tune, and ribald lyrics, the song soon outgrew the confines of the Anacreontic Society.
Other lyrics were set to the melody, both in Europe and America. One Robert Treat Paine composed the immensely popular “Adams and Liberty” to the tune in 1798. This work consists of 10 verses of Colonial English, with awkward contractions and verb tenses. It is most definitely an ADD sufferer’s nightmare.
Before lam-blasting Paine, Key and Smith for having an utter lack of creativity and disregard for another’s compositions, let us consider the time in question. Songs and music were spread primarily through performances. Once in a while, one song writer would mail a composition to a trusted fellow musician.
There were no iPods, no radio, no MP3 players. There was no “Ben Franklin’s America’s Top 40” being broadcast from downtown Philadelphia. That most rudimentary machine for playing recorded music, the Victrola, did not exist at that time.
Music was carried from cities to towns to hamlets by travelers. These songs would be played and sung at community gatherings, church services, and most commonly; in the local tavern. Before we cast a critical eye at such a gathering place, taverns and public houses (“pubs”) served as the news gathering places of the day.
Before CNN and Headline News, before Fox , text and Twitter and all the other information disseminating venues, if you wanted to know what was shakin’ in the ‘hood, you went to the tavern.
In fact, that proudest of fighting forces, the United States Marine Corps, was birthed at Tun Tavern, on Water Street in Philadelphia. There, on November 10, 1775, Captain Samuel Nicholas began recruiting to fill “two battalions of Marines.”
But, I digress.
Setting words to melody is a very effective means of learning. Recite the alphabet aloud, do you hear the song in your mind?
Given the time and place, what better way to spread a new song but to use an existing melody?
The song “America” as set to a tune a nation of former British subjects would know; “God Save the King” Also, America was obtaining large numbers of Germanic immigrants, who would also recognize the tune.
With Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner”, again, it was put to a well known melody. It is amusing to wonder if John Smith was somewhat flattered and chagrined to learn his tune was becoming more famous as a patriotic song for a former colony. One can only imagine what his reaction to Jimi Hendrix’ rendering of his composition would have been.
On this day, eleven score and eight-teen years after our fore-fathers set forth a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all Men are created equal; LET FREEDOM RING
May God continue to Bless America.