"The Star Spangled Banner" has earned a hallowed reputation in American society, but this has not always been the case. Between its founding in 1814 and 1931, it was simply one of many patriotic songs that at best could be described as the de facto national anthem of the United States. By the early 20th century however, there was a newfound interest in the song that pushed forward efforts to make it the official hymn of the country. Proponents of "The Star Spangled Banner" succeeded in 1931 when Hoover signed HR 14 into law and the country had a new official anthem. While the song is well ingrained into American life today, this was not always the case. Before 1930 when legislation finally made headway for an official anthem, the country supported several patriotic songs depending on the sentiment of the time.
In the late 1920s however, many start to oppose using "The Star Spangled Banner" for the national anthem for various reasons including its martial tone, excessive range, and content as a song that only encapsulates a single event in American history. Nonetheless, the upgrade to the national anthem has a profound effect on the song: it evolves from a popular patriotic ditty to one holy in nature that people develop an emotional attachment to as the highest form of American patriotism.
The Changing Star Spangled Banner
Before the Star Spangled Banner had been considered for the national anthem, it was fairly commonplace for musicians to give the tune their own personal style. One by the commander of the marine band at the time, John Philip Sousa, had a "Wagnerian" take on "The Star Spangled Banner" for the World Fair in 1892. Sousa's version sounds much different from the original, but unlike after 1931, he is not criticized for changing a sacred song and adding his own flair. Thus, the public only sees the Banner as a traditional patriotic song and not one fully connected to the American spirit.
Moreover, Many musicians would often play some of the subsequent and lesser known verses of "The Star Spangled Banner." These verses are noticeably more martial than the first, a popular criticism of the song when proponents push for its upgrade to be the official national anthem. Although all its verses are considered part tof the national anthem, it has become the standard to only perform the first. Perhaps this is a reaction by those who believed "The Star Spangled Banner" was too militaristic for daily use or perhaps it was more practical to only sing the first verse. Nonetheless, before 1931, it was acceptable to change "The Star Spangled Banner" as it was not yet sacrosanct to the American people.
The De Facto National Anthem
While"The Star Spangled Banner" was essentially only one of many patriotic songs before 1931 many still operated with the song as if it was the de facto national anthem and the international community also recognized the song in this light. During Olympic celebrations, the public would honor athletes who had competed with patriotic songs and among them was "The Star Spangled Banner". This tradition began after the very first Olympics in 1896 and as the picture shows, was a mainstay to celebrate and honor American victories. Also, "The Star Spangled Banner" is inherently tied to American pride as the flag drapes many parts of the building.
Furthermore, other countries around the world favorable to the United States would translate the song into their own language. The president of the newly liberated Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, had studied in America and was thankful to the United States for helping to liberate the Czechs from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In response, a Czech rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" is created. Thus, Francis Scott Key's poem, while not yet the country's official anthem, was considered by many both at home and abroad, to take the place of a national anthem. Nonetheless, there was no public outrage over allowing the the song to be sung in Czech with the growing contingent of Czech-Americans in the United States, but today the public opinion supports only singing the song in English.
In the late 1920s, There were stronger efforts by proponents to make "The Star Spangled Banner" the national anthem. One strong contributor to this was a cartoon in Ripley's Believe it or Not! that explained how the United States still had no official anthem. However, the cartoon does recognize that the US had been using a song developed from an old English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven" as its designated national hymn, The Star Spangled Banner. Then in 1930, a bill proposed by John Charles Linthicum passed through the House Judiciary Committee that would upgrade the status of that song to the national anthem and made its way to President Hoover's desk in March 1931. This bill did have several opponents who criticized the song for its martial tone, embracing the theme of a single and unremarkable event in American history, and its origins as a drinking song (the US was still under prohibition), but these detractors lost out and "The Star Spangled Banner" would be there to stay.
Although one would think that the reaction to the United States finally receiving an official anthem would be grand, it was actually rather underwhelming at the time. There was a short blurb about the new anthem on the first page of the New York Times, but the article provided no commentary, analysis, or special event to commemorate the occasion. Perhaps people believed life would go on as normal, but the 1930s saw a change in tone when referring to "The Star Spangled Banner" as it transitions from one of several patriotic songs to one revered to have the utmost importance for American patriotism.
Life with the New Anthem
After the new anthem had been selected, various organizations pushed for an expanded usage of the song in public life. Television stations like NBC would play the anthem regularly and it would be taught to schoolchildren as shown in the picture above from the Library of Congress. Because people feel a greater emotional attachment to a song the more they hear it, this process ingrained "The Star Spangled Banner" into the minds of Americans which in turn drew an emotional response whenever they were to hear it. Now that song was developing a sacrosanct nature, people were more likely to uphold it as tradition and detest anyone who either tries to change the song or use it in a way that is not perceived to reflect American patriotism.
Then during World War II, "The Star Spangled Banner" began to be played regularly at baseball games to support the war effort and promote American patriotism. Since then, the national anthem at all sporting events has been a mainstay in public life. Americans hear the anthem frequently and at times, use of the anthem has been the center of protest. In 2016, Many African American athletes have used anthem as a vehicle to protest the institutional racism still present in this country. However, 57% of people disagree with this method of protest according to a YouGov poll and the reason no doubt has to be the perception that these athletes are insulting American patriotism and the national spirit. There are certain things society believes the national anthem should be used for and protest is not one of them. Furthermore, the United States has become increasingly diverse so there are pushes by some to allow the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner" in languages other than English, but according to a Gallup poll conducted in 2006, 69% of people believe it should only be sung in English.
Thus, "The Star Spangled Banner" up until the 1920s was simply a popular patriotic tune that was played at public events and ceremonies. When the song became the official national anthem in 1931 however, the perception of the song in society changed. It was now something everyone had to know and various people and organizations would frequently play the song for people to develop an emotional connection to the song. By the late 1930s, The Star Spangled Banner Association and other affiliated groups made efforts to prevent the repeal of the song as the national anthem and also prevent anyone from changing its traditional sound. Thus, "The Star Spangled Banner's" transition to the national anthem has played a role in how Americans perceive the song today: an indelible symbol of American patriotism that cannot be tampered with.
Pictures (in order)
Smith, John Stafford, and John Philip Sousa. Star Spangled Banner. 1892. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100000017/. (Accessed December 15, 2016.)
Olympic Athletes Reception, Crowd Singing "Star Spangled Banner" August 29, 1908. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Washington DC. Accessed November 12, 2016. https://www.loc.gov/resource/ggbain.02070/.
Ripley, Robert. "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Cartoon. Applewood Books. Accessed November 12, 2016. Ripley, Robert. "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Applewood Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.
"Star Spangled Banner is Voted National Anthem by Congress." New York Times4 Mar. 1931: n. pag. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.
Dick, Sheldon, photographer. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The children in Martha Royer's school singing the "Star Spangled Banner." Notice the Amish boy on the extreme left. ?, 1938. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/fsa2000021802/PP/. (Accessed December 15, 2016.)
Deford, Frank. The National Image and the National Pasttime. Digital image. NPR. N.p., 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.
Carroll, Joseph. "Public: National Anthem Should be Sung in English." Gallup. May 3, 2006. Accessed November 1, 2016.
Moore, Peter. "Significant Racial Divide Over Kaepernick Protest." YouGov. September 6, 2016. Accessed November 1, 2016.
No Author, "Committee Hears Star Spangled Banner Sung; Studies Bill to Make It the National Anthem." New York Times, February 1, 1930. Accessed December 11, 2016.
No Author, "Groups to Fight 'Jazzing' of the National Anthem." New York Times, December 21, 1938. Accessed December 10, 2016.
No Author, "NBC to Broadcast Daily Star-Spangled Banner." New York Times. April 19, 1936. Accessed November 12, 2016.
Ross, Alex. "Star-Spangled Wagner." The Rest is Noise, December 31, 2012. Accessed November 1, 2016.