Star Spangled Banner Poem Analysis Essays

Oh say can you see
by the dawn's early light...

There is little basis for the legend that the tune of our national anthem was an old English drinking song. On the other hand, there is strong evidence that the members of the club for which the music was originally composed, the Anacreontic Society, frequently lifted not only their voices but also their cups in song.

In the mid-1760s, a London society of amateur musicians, the Anacreontic Society, commissioned a young church musician, John Stafford Smith, to compose music for material written by its president, Ralph Tomlinson. Smith's tune, entitled "Anacreon in Heav'n," was a vehicle not only for the Society's accomplished amateurs, but for its best baritone singer to display virtuosity through an astounding vocal range. Its musical complexity has been compared to that of the famous "Toreador Song" in Bizet's opera Carmen.

First published in England, the tune appeared in North America before the end of the eighteenth century where, as often happened, new lyrics -- including "Adams and Liberty" and "Jefferson and Liberty" -- were written. The song's appeal may have been due at least in part to its unique metrical structure. Not found in any other song of the period, its striking meter may have been what attracted Francis Scott Key. By all accounts tone deaf, Key had already composed one other poem using the meter of the "Anacreontic Song" when he wrote "The Star Spangled Banner."

On September 14, 1814, while detained aboard a British ship during the bombardment of Ft. McHenry, Francis Scott Key witnessed at dawn the failure of the British attempt to take Baltimore. Based on this experience, he wrote a poem that poses the question "Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave?" Almost immediately Key's poem was published and wedded to the tune of the "Anacreontic Song." Long before the Civil War "The Star Spangled Banner" became the musical and lyrical embodiment of the American flag. During the latter war, songs such as "Farewell to the Star Spangled Banner" and "Adieu to the Star Spangled Banner Forever," clearly referencing Key's song, were published within the Confederacy.

On July 26, 1889, the Secretary of the Navy designated "The Star Spangled Banner" as the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag. And during Woodrow Wilson's presidency, it was chosen by the White House to be played wherever a national anthem was appropriate. Still the song was variously criticized as too violent in tone, too difficult to sing, and, by prohibitionists, as basically a drinking song. But on its side "The Star Spangled Banner" had a strong supporter in John Philip Sousa who, in 1931, opined that besides Key's "soul-stirring" words, "it is the spirit of the music that inspires." That same year, on March 3, President Herbert C. Hoover signed the Act establishing Key's poem and Smith's music as the official anthem of the United States.

The new law, however, did not specify an official text or musical arrangement, but left room for creative arrangements and interpretations of "The Star Spangled Banner." The standard instrumental version was unofficially established as the arrangement used by the U.S. service bands. However, other versions include: Igor Stravinsky's 1941 version for orchestra and male chorus, Duke Ellington's 1948 Cornell University arrangement, Jimi Hendrix's 1969 electric guitar version, José Feliciano's 1968 rendition, and the 1991 version by the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin.

The Anacreontic Society

The Anacreontic Society was founded around 1766, and named in honor of the ancient Greek court poet Anacreon, who in the sixth century B.C., entertained his tyrannical patrons with lyrics celebrating wine, women, and song. In 1791 Franz Josef Haydn was the Society's honored guest at a performance of one of his own symphonies, which indicates the primacy of the group's musical interests. Yet as one witnesss wrote of another occasion:

At ten O Clock the Instrumental Concert ended, when we retired to the Supper rooms. After Supper, having sung "Non nobis Domine" we returned to the Concert Room ... After the Anacreontic Song had been sung, in the Chorus of the last verse of which, all the Members, Visitors, and Performers, joined, "hand in hand," we were entertained by the performance of various celebrated Catches, Glees, Songs, Duettos, and other Vocal, with some Rhetorical compositions, till twelve O Clock. The President having left the Chair, after that time, the proceedings were very disgraceful to the Society; as the greatest levity, and vulgar obscenity, generally prevailed.
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  1. Delaplaine, Edward S. Francis Scott Key and the national anthem: an address delivered before the Columbia Historical Society. Washington: Wilson-Epes Press, 1947. Call number: ML3561 .S8 D44
  2. Delaplaine, Edward S. Francis Scott Key: his life and times. Brooklyn, New York: Biography Press, 1937. Call number: PS2168 .D4
  3. Filby, P. W. and Edward G. Howard, compilers. Star spangled books: Books, sheet music, newspapers, manuscripts, and persons associated with "The star spangled banner." Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1972. Call number: ML3561 .S8 F54
  4. Lichtenwanger, William. The music of 'The Star-Spangled Banner': from Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress/Government Printing Office, 1977. Reprinted from the July 1977 Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress. Call numbers: (separate report) ML3561 .S8 L52, (Quarterly Journal) Z663 .A5, ISSN: 0041-7939
  5. Molotsky, Irvin. The flag, the poet, and the song: the story of the Star-Spangled Banner. New York: Plume, 2001. Call number: E356 .B2 M65 2001
  6. Sonneck, Oscar George Theodore. Report on "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Hail Columbia," "America," and "Yankee Doodle." Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1972. Call number: ML3551 .S6
  7. ________. The Star Spangled Banner. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1914. Call number: ML3561 .S762
  8. U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Committee on the Judiciary. The Star-Spangled Banner: hearings before subcommittee no. 4 of the Committee on the Judiciary. 85th Congress, 2nd session; 21, 22, and 28 May 1958. Call number: ML3561 .S8 U5
  9. Weybright, Victor. Spangled banner: the story of Francis Scott Key. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.: 1935. Call number: ML3561 .W4 S6

Unit 7: The Great Depression and World War II      

"God Bless America"

by Adam Cooper


The Song:

“God Bless America”

Words and Music by Irving Berlin, 1918; revised 1938


Song Background:

 Irving Berlin, a Russian Jewish immigrant and a leading 20th century American songwriter, originally wrote “God Bless America” in 1918 as part of a World War I all-soldier musical revue, Yip, Yip, Yaphank. Berlin’s mother often used the phrase “God Bless America” to express her gratitude at having the United States to flee to from prejudicial violence back in her native Siberia. The resulting wartime song, which included the lyrics “Make her victorious on land and foam,” was ultimately edited out of the production due to its perceived conflict with the show’s overall comedic style.

Twenty years later Berlin wanted to write a “peace song” to complement the ephemeral peace-keeping events associated with the 1938 Anglo-German Pact of Friendship. After rejecting other tunes, Berlin opted to revise “God Bless America” for this purpose. Written in the form of a prayer, the song was intended to avoid being an overtly nationalistic or politicized song. Popular vocalist Kate Smith reintroduced the song to national acclaim on her radio broadcast honoring the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day on November 11, 1938.

The easily sung tune became so popular that a movement formed to make it the new national anthem, replacing “The Star Spangled Banner” which had acquired that designation in 1931. The song, and Kate Smith’s performance of it, would later be featured in the patriotic stage show and follow-up film, This is the Army. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” another popular candidate for being the national anthem, was actually written as a critical response to Irving Berlin’s song. Through criticized at times for being propagandistic, reactionary, or simplistically sentimental, the song has been sung at sporting events, in films, recitals, political conventions, and grade school classrooms ever since.

The Activities:

Central Activity

After providing a general introduction to the song “God Bless America,” read or sing the song as a class. To bring focus to each line’s imagery, select a different student to recite each individual phrase and then read the song aloud in its entirety moving from student to student.

Using questions from “Further Classroom Discussion,” engage students in an open dialogue on the meaning of the song and on interpretations of its lyrics. In addition, students might be queried to identify their song preference for a national anthem, describe briefly the song’s lyrics, and explain why they chose it.

Each student should then write a poem about his/her sense of what America is or what it means to be an American (or an American immigrant). They can focus on the nation, a home state, city, or neighborhood. Students should also be engaged in a preliminary discussion about why it might be considered inappropriate to ask public school students to write their own prayers. Each student will then present her/his poem to the class.

Further Classroom Discussion:

  • Survey experiences different groupings of Americans had living in the United States during the Great Depression

  • Discuss both interventionist and isolationist trends and forces in the US pertaining to events developing in Europe during the late 1930s

  • Compare and contrast Berlin’s song with other tunes that might qualify as a national anthem. Examples include “This Land is Your Land,” “America the Beautiful,” “America,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

  • Review the concept of separation of church and state and analyze how the song pertains to it

  • Analyze how both the lyrics and the music contribute and complement each other in the aural experience

Research Papers:

  • Write a research paper on the history of the national anthem of the United States, “The Star Spangled Banner”

  • Write a survey paper on 1938 world events that would provide a historical context for the release of this song

  • Write a short biography on the life of Irving Berlin or on the life of Kate Smith

  • Write an analytical essay on the causes of World War II with a focus on what led to America’s involvement in the war

  • Write a comparative essay on “God Bless America” versus Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which was written as a critical response to Irving Berlin’s song

  • Write a personal essay on what being an American means to the student

Oral Presentations:

  • Give a presentation on the music of Irving Berlin and how “God Bless America” fits into the context of his life’s work

  • Give a talk comparing national anthem-like songs in America to ones from other countries

  • Present a comparison of different renditions of “God Bless America” by different artists

  • Offer a detailed summary of how the concept of “God Bless America” has played a role in American popular culture throughout the last century

  • Describe a set of songs which express the student’s hopes and dreams for her/his life

  • Give a presentation on what in the student’s life s/he loves and wants to stand beside and guide

Artwork and Performances:

  • Sing “God Bless America” in class, ask students to write about the singing experience, and then compare the present-day experience to memories of having sung the tune as a child

  • Make a collage of images expressing what America means to the student

  • Draw or paint two images: one conveying a sense of America as expressed in the song and the second expressing the student’s sense of what America means to her/him

  • Perform or adapt into a new vignette the “God Bless America” sequence from the film This is the Army

  • Create a video using the student’s world as a landscape from which to compose a vision of what America means to him/her

The Questions:

  • Who would sing this song? Who is the audience? What is the song’s purpose? What is the style and tone of the song? What kinds of ideas are presented in the lyrics? What is propaganda? Is this song propaganda? Why or why not?

  • How is America conveyed in the song? What role do US citizens play in “God Bless America”? Does the song capture what America is? If not, what aspects of America are absent?

  • What qualities should a national anthem possess? Would “God Bless America” be a good candidate for being the United States’ national anthem? Why or why not?

  • What is patriotism? How are songs connected to patriotism? Why is “God Bless America” repeatedly sung by schoolchildren across the United States? What roles has the song played in American life in the last century? Why is it significant that Irving Berlin gave the royalties from the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America?

  • How does religion play a role in this song? What does Berlin’s use of “God” signify? What is a prayer? What is a blessing? What would it mean if God did bless America and why would this be desirable in 1938? Where else in American culture are there images or symbols of religion and Americana that are intertwined?

  • How does Berlin’s song speak to world events of 1938 and America’s place within them? Why did Berlin add the introduction to the 1938 revision of the song? How does it differ from the rest of the song in terms of content and style?

  • How is “God Bless America” a peace song? a war song? How is the song a bridge between the two world wars? What is Armistice Day and what does it signify? Why is it noteworthy that the revised version of this WWI song was performed on this special anniversary?

  • How might peoples who have experienced oppression in the United States respond to and/or critique “God Bless America”? Why is it noteworthy that this popular and patriotic song was composed by a Russian Jewish immigrant? Are peoples of Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America “Americans”? How might they respond to this song?

  • What does the pronoun “her” refer to in the song? What other non-gendered nouns are referred to as female? Why are these objects designated as such and what does this usage suggest about language and perception in American culture? Considering the Judeo-Christian notion of God as a father and the relationship between God and America in the song, what aspects of gender roles and gender typing are discernible in the lyrics?

The Comparative Element:

1) Information on the 1943 Hollywood film This is the Army

After introducing and analyzing the song “God Bless America,” students should see and discuss the “God Bless America” scene from the film This is the Army to aid in the appreciation of links between the two world wars and the role the song played in promoting patriotism as the United States took part in World War II. Topics for discussion might include the following:

  • What observations do students make of the film clip’s images

  • How do the film images relate (or not) to the images of the song’s lyrics

  • How does adding visual imagery alter the experience of hearing the song

  • How does experiencing the song differ during peacetime versus wartime

  • What comparisons are established between contemplating World War I and World War II

  • What kinds of wartime experiences are conveyed in the film

  • How do these film images compare with other films about World War II (both American and foreign)

  • How do these film images compare with films of other wars in American history

2) After discussing Irving Berlin’s 1938 version, students should read and analyze Robert Montgomery Bird’s song "God Bless America" (1834) and Harold Pinter’s recent poem by the same name . Students should be given a historical context for both works for purposes of comprehension and comparison. Topics for discussion might include the following:

  • Describe in detail what observations students make of the lyrics

  • Compare and contrast the lyrics of the three “God Bless America”s

  • Analyze how the visions of America are similar or dissimilar among the three works

  • Describe the relationship between the people, the land, and God in Bird’s song

  • Discuss the virtues and deficiencies of Bird’s version as a national anthem

  • Analyze how Pinter’s poem differs in content and style from the two songs

  • Explain what Pinter means by “America’s God”

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