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A New Star Spangled Banner!

Sing 'Star Spangled Banner' your own way, says Geoffrey O'Hara, Noted Composer Has Revised National Anthem. "Discovered: The True Way to Sing The Star Spangled Banner.'"

When this headline appeared in a New York paper it may have carried a bit of a jolt to the worthy few who for years had risen with the first strains of the national anthem to sing unfalteringly to the last note. By this same virtue undoubtedly many who had hummed, rejoiced and secretly resolved to learn the words. But what New Yorkers thought may never be known, for as the story unfolded it developed that the true way to sing The Star Spangled Banner was "everybody's way or, the people's way," according to Geoffrey O'Hara, the famous composer and Irish tenor, who ultimately brought the revision we sing today to the American public. O'Hara had long resented the fact that an American audience must sing its own national anthem in someone elses way. He believed that the American public had a very definite idea and a certain unanimity of self expression when allowed to sing the song unguided, and he decided to let the people settle the question.

Phonograph records were made of various audiences singing without direction. Three of these audiences in New York had twenty-five hundred or more in the house. When later these records were compared, O'Hara was able to prove that the people did not sing "The Star Spangled Banner" in the original Francis Scott Key key or in the way of the United States Army and Navy ,or in the version of the American Board of Education, yet universally they sang it exactly the same way, the way of the people. 

It was about this time that O'Hara was asked to prepare an arrangement of the anthem to be sung by the Mendelssohn Choir of Toronto in New York. So, guided by his phonograph records and his experience as  song leader in the army, where he found the men sang their national anthem in the same unauthorized way, regardless of their native state, he proceeded to produce a new "Star Spangled Banner."

"The Star Spangled Banner", was ordered played at military and naval occasions by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, but was not designated the national anthem by an Act of Congress until 1931. In September 1814, during the War of 1812, the British arrested Dr. William Beanes, an American accused of sending three British soldiers to jail. He was held aboard a British ship stationed off the Baltimore coast. Francis Scott Key, a well-known lawyer and poet, was asked to secure the doctor’s release. Departing from Baltimore, Key and Colonel Skinner, a U.S. agent in charge of American prisoner exchange, set sail on a small boat in search of the British ship. Flying a flag of truce, they sailed for several days before they spotted and, soon after, boarded it. Initially, British commanders refused to be swayed by Key’s arguments to free Dr. Beanes. When Key presented letters from wounded British soldiers who had been treated fairly by Dr. Beanes, they relented. Unfortunately, Key, Skinner, and Dr. Beanes had heard about preparations for an upcoming attack while on board. They were not permitted to return to Baltimore and were escorted under guard to their boat.
Early in the morning of September 13, 1814, Key, Skinner, and Dr. Beanes watched from their boat as the British attacked Fort McHenry. Rockets streaked across the sky and cannons boomed. Some time before dawn, the dark skies fell silent. Unknown to the three men, the British had decided to abandon the assault.
As dawn drew nearer and nearer, Key searched for a sign through the clearing smoke. Had Fort McHenry fallen? When daylight finally arrived, the American flag waved gallantly in the breeze. The sight so moved Key that he began writing a poem on the back of a letter retrieved from his pocket. He completed the poem later in his Baltimore hotel room.

The following morning, Key showed the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge J. H. Nicholson. Nicholson liked the poem so much, he had it printed under the title, “Defense of Fort McHenry,” and distributed it throughout Baltimore. Nicholson also suggested the words be put to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a song which was popular in America at the time and happened to be a British drinking song.

In October 1814, a Baltimore actor sang the song at Captain McCauley’s tavern, though he called it the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It was an immediate success.

Over the years, the Star-Spangled Banner grew in popularity. In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy made it the official song for all flag raisings. Later, in 1916, Woodrow Wilson, our twenty-eighth president, boosted its status further. He proclaimed it the national anthem of all the armed forces. But it was not until the 1918 World Series that the song took hold of America during a game that almost didn’t happen. America had been involved in World War I for a year. Out of respect for the soldiers, baseball officials wanted to cancel the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. When it became known, however, that American soldiers fighting in France were eager to know the Series’ results, the games commenced. To honor these brave men, the officials had the band play the Star-Spangled Banner during the seventh-inning stretch of the first game. And, the rest is history. Soon it became tradition to play the Star-Spangled Banner at all baseball games and, eventually, nearly all sporting events.

Geoffrey O'Hara


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