A Perfect Rendition of Imperfection - Hendrix and the Star-Spangled Banner
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was not always our national anthem. The four stanzas were written by amateur poet Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, when Great Britain tried to destroy and absorb the United States for a second time. It appeared they might once again reclaim this land and bring it into the United Kingdom after burning the White House and Capitol Building to the ground.
It was Britain’s subsequent naval onslaught of Baltimore that led Key to pen what is now known as the United States’ National Anthem. Key watched as British ships sent rockets and bombs raining down on the hapless and unprepared American port. At “the dawn’s early light,” on the morning of August 14th, 1814, Key was able to say he could see an American flag flying above Fort McHenry.
He knew the Americans were able to survive the attack and repel the invading British navy. So he wrote a poem he called “The Defense of Fort M’Henry.” After a few Baltimore newspapers printed the piece, it gained popularity and began spreading to other areas. The poem was converted to a song, but it did not become our official national anthem until 1931, when Congress declared it so.
The song is not about peace. It is not about freedom. It is not about tranquility. Key’s words refer to our survival of the nasty bombardment of New England by Old England. It is about facing entrenched evil. It's about resilience and perseverance over adversity. It is about steadfast defense of ideals despite the onslaught of those who would seek to destroy peace, freedom, and tranquility.
In the last one hundred years, this nation has seen many such assaults on those same ideals. When Jimi Hendrix played his vision of Francis Scott Key’s seminal poem in a small farm town in upstate New York in the wee hours of the morning of August 18, 1969, he perfectly captured the sentiments that Key must have had while watching his country hang on by a thread just 150 years earlier.
Hendrix stayed awake for days as he watched a storm wash away 90% of the spectators. A flurry of exuberance was followed by the realization that everything was ruined. The show was nearly cancelled. Hendrix persevered. He played for the few people who remained; the resilient few who dared stay to hear him defend the ideals that America continued to stand for, at least on paper.
One has to imagine being in his shoes. This is the Civil Rights Movement. The Vietnam War. Here are the last few white hippies waiting to see a black man rise up in the shambles of a battered town to play America's song. Hendrix added an inordinate amount of feedback and hammering to replicate the sounds of bombs blasting and rockets firing off and American patriots weathering the storm.
Even though we have still never really achieved the peaks of the soaring rhetoric that our founders set forth for us, there have been those who have tried desperately to fight for those ideals. We, the People, should be relentlessly mindful that there are and will always be those who shoot rockets out of mouths and machines alike to destroy those ideals. We should be willing to defend them.
So I wish my fellow Americans a safe and happy Independence Day. But I also hope we will pause to remember what those who came before us fought so hard to become independent from. And I hope that we will fight tirelessly to remain independent; to remain a shining city upon a hill - a bastion of freedom in a world of chaos. I hope God will continue to bless these great United States of America.