Sunday, September 14, 2014

“Star Spangled Banner”

Francis Scott Key stumbled  upon the idea of inflicting the Star Spangled Banner on what was at that point, a less than musically attentive nation from aboard a ship in the harbor where he observed the British attack on Fort McHenry. This battle, occurring on Tuesday, September 13th, 1814 during the War of 1812 led to him being inspired, as he observed the American Flag, tattered but still flying proudly over the fort the following morning leading him to pen the  poem that was only later set to music (so maybe it wasn't his idea after all).

The melody he himself however eventually chose for it was from an old English song called “To Anacreon in Heaven”. Anacreon was a Greek poet noted for his paeans to wine and love. It is not known if he actually is in heaven or even if, being a Greek, he believed in heaven, however, the English believed him to be there and that is (presumably) good enough for me as they usually have the best information about regions to which the French have only limited access.

Only fragments of Anacreon’s original poetry remain. One of them goes like this:


      Men and maids at time of year
The ripe clusters jointly bear
To the press, but in when thrown,
They by men are trod alone,
Who in Bacchus’ praises join,
    Squeeze the grape, let out the wine:
    Oh with what delight they spy
      The new must when tunned work high!

      Which if old men freely take,
      Their grey heads and heels they shake;
      And a young man, if he find
      Some fair maid to sleep resigned      
      In the shade, he straight goes to her,
      Wakes and roundly ‘gins to woo her; etc.                                                                                                    
In case you hadn’t noticed, there is, it seems, a great deal of technical information regarding Greek winemaking (as well as the quasi-erotic insomnial stimulation) that can be gleaned from this seemingly bland pastoral ditty,--. From inspection of the first verso, it is immediately evident that it was not the custom apparently, to allow women to be involved directly in pressing of the grapes: “They by men are trod alone.”  While it is tempting to associate this with or attribute it to the fact that women may have been menstruating at the time and thus considered unclean and unfit for this kind of duty, historically speaking, that is in fact a mostly Jewish Talmudic idea and hence not one that likely permeated Greek wine culture and so, is most likely the wrong gloss on the stanza as far as the gender related subtext.

If one instead takes testimony found elsewhere, scenes portrayed on pottery and in literature and the like, the act of treading wine is carried out not only by men but by ithyphallic fauns or satyrs. So yet another motive arises.  The satyr or faun is a figure that the Greeks used to portray a kind of non-discriminating asexual libido. If you have ever trodden on grapes, you know that it is a very sensual experience, squishing the must beneath your toes and feeling the juice squirting out from between them. It is therefore very likely that at Greek wine crushing festivals, a great deal more than grapes were being squeezed: “When tunned work high”, (or so the poet would have you believe). Greek wine is well known to have additives. Usually they claim it is tree resin.  (Yeah, tree resin,-- that’s the ticket!)

It is not known if Francis Scott Key was under the influence, or sexually erect when he wrote the Star Spangled Banner but he was ‘tunned worked high’ and the chances are, having just recently been released into American custody from a British frigate, he may have been both. (No doubt a degree of libatious celebration would account for the rather obscure sourcing of the melody.) The song immediately became popular, though it was not until 1931 that it was officially adopted as the national anthem. The coining of the phrase itself, “Star Spangled Banner”, still remains something of a mystery to me which I will make a  cursory and half-hearted-attempt to unravel (no pun) despite the fact that whoever made it our national anthem was probably themselves ‘worked high’ at the time.
In parsing the words, “Star Spangled Banner”, the evolution of the “star” metaphor could easily have been derived from the very shape of Fort McHenry of which certainly Key was aware. The configuration of the fortifications was that of a star enclosed within a star and so the flag also at the time, was a field of stars within a star, within a star, a powerful and poetic image from which Key may have drawn his inspiration. As far as introducing the word “spangled”, I would hypothesize that perhaps Mr. Key (not altogether a bad name for a musician by the way) had made the short trip to the strip joints located just up Light Street prior to his capture by the British (I stand by this assertion though the Star Spangled Banner is very infrequently employed by strippers to accompany their routines). 

These obscure conditions under which certain phrases such as “Star Spangled Banner” thus may have evolved or been coined and thence adopted into the national consciousness, the reasons for which, (I as a would-be ‘historical author’ would prefer not to speculate on), nevertheless unreasonably tend to fascinate me.  Phrases that have been adopted generally in other common usages, even those ‘coined’ specifically for coins per sae can, in themselves, be, as it were, sometimes sanguinely amusing. For instance, it is not widely known that the motto;  “IN GOD WE TRUST” did not appear on U.S. currency and coins until April 22nd, 1864.  The earlier motto had been simply: “MIND YOUR BUSINESS”. (Neither of these two phrases are eminently singable, but when taken together might have served as a good synopsis of Thomas Merton’s philosophy.) 

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