Our Flag Was Still There

It's the star-spangled banner; the anthem it inspired plays on as a musical salute to the stars and stripes

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The music was a hit in America. A patriotic song, "Adams and Liberty" (later changed to "Jefferson and Liberty"), adopted the tune, which was also used for a song celebrating the naval war against Barbary pirates, early in the 19th century: "When the warrior returns, from the battle afar, To the home and the country he nobly defended...." And who had written that? Francis Scott Key.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" was popular, but not our national anthem. Not until 1931 did Congress grant that status. Before that we'd made do with "My Country 'Tis Of Thee," our version of "God Save the King (Queen)" as an anthem. (Many people still regret that "America the Beautiful" wasn't chosen.) But Key's song, played more slowly than the original song, with a few crashing chords and drumrolls, works well because it deals with our flag. We Americans don't have a king or queen. We have a flag.

The Smithsonian got this one in 1907, as a loan from Armistead's grandson that turned into a gift. A strange red V may have been the start of an A for Armistead. Some missing pieces were probably snipped out for souvenirs. They were likely not shot away during the bombardment. In that rain, the flag would have drooped against its mast with little chance of being hit.

In fact, some experts believe that the giant Pickersgill flag wasn't raised at all until that clear morning when Key saw it; another banner had flown in the rain. The impact on Key as the morning breeze finally revealed the enormous emblem of his beloved country — beaten, scoffed at, but still in the fight — must have been explosive.

Even in these cynical days, Americans who have lived abroad for a while, and suddenly meet the Stars and Stripes, feel a wrenching emotional surge — the pulse quickens, breath shortens, the throat tightens. In Alice Duer Miller's narrative poem "The White Cliffs," an American girl, living in England during World War I, feels Britain's anger and dismay at our continued neutrality during three years of suffering. Then the American doughboys arrive on their way to the trenches:


Marching through London to the beat of a boastful air,
Seeing for the first time Piccadilly and Leicester Square,
All the bands playing: "Over There, Over There,
Send the word, send the word to beware - "
And as the American flag went fluttering by,
Englishmen uncovered, and I began to cry.

By Edwards Park


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