Why the Star-Spangled Banner’s as important today as it ever was

A few days ago, I recorded a piece for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent programme about why Americans are obsessed with their national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner.

It was light-hearted, centred on me trying – really trying! – to sing the tune at a baseball team’s anthem auditions.

It was going to be broadcast today, but then the tragic events in Boston happened. It’s hardly the time for a jokey radio programme.

It is, though, a time for the Star-Spangled Banner – a song that can actually give Americans hope at a moment like this.

When I was travelling in the US recently, I asked a lot of people what the song meant to them, and a surprising number told me it was important because of its original meaning – of America standing up to the might of the British Empire.

The song’s about the British bombing Baltimore during the War of 1812; the city somehow holding out.

I was initially confused when people told me this. The US today is the equivalent of what the British empire was in the 19th century. It’s hardly a bunch of pilgrims standing up to a bully. But people would always say the same thing: “S’pose you’re right, but when I sing it, it reminds me I have to stand up for what I believe in, no matter who tries to undermine it.”

There’s a lot of people out there who would say the US “standing up for what it believes in” has been a bad thing. But right now, I prefer to think how remarkable it is that a song can still cause such emotion in people, and bring them together, especially a song that’s so ancient and so difficult to sing.

Here’s Marvin Gaye doing it. It’s probably not the most appropriate version for right now, but it is my favourite.

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