cover image O Say Can You Hear: A Cultural Biography of The Star-Spangled Banner

O Say Can You Hear: A Cultural Biography of The Star-Spangled Banner

Mark Clague. Norton, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-65138-6

Musicologist Clague debuts with a sparkling study of America’s national anthem. He recounts how the successful defense of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry against the British navy’s bombardment during the War of 1812 inspired lawyer Francis Scott Key—who witnessed the battle from an unarmed “truce ship” in the city’s harbor—to describe the event in lyrics set to the tune of an 18th-century song composed by Englishman John Stafford Smith. Such “newspaper ballads,” Clague explains, were “the viral meme, tweets, and TikToks of early America.” Noting that “no other song of the era became so broadly popular so fast,” Clague analyzes the lyrics’ “volatile emotional journey, from fear and uncertainty through relief and pride, to anger and determination, to pious gratitude and prayer, and finally to patriotic devotion,” and examines alternative versions penned to support abolition, unionization, and other progressive causes. He also vividly recreates noteworthy performances, including Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic reinterpretation at Woodstock, Roseanne Barr’s profane recital in front of an MLB crowd, and Whitney Houston’s stirring rendition at the 1991 Super Bowl. Stuffed with colorful character sketches, intriguing historical arcana, and memorable musical insights, this pitch-perfect history hits all the right notes. (June)