July 18, 2012
BY RICK KOLLINGER
As I anxiously await the massive celebrations planned for the bicentennial of the War of 1812, I think it’s a good time to reflect on the author of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Francis Scott Key.
Key was born in Frederick County, and as a slender youth, picked up the nickname “Skeleton” that haunted him for the rest of his life. A below-average student, Key studied law at St. John’s College in Annapolis.
St. John’s didn’t “technically” have a law school but instead had students study the “Great Books.” Key’s law studies consisted mainly of reading the collected works of John Grisham and Scott Turow.
On the night of Sept. 13, 1814, Key was aboard a British ship in the Baltimore harbor preparing to dine at Phillips Crab House. Key was trying to negotiate a recording contract with the British for his group, “Skeleton and the Keys.”
Like most St. John’s graduates, Key was something of an amateur poet and hoped to get in on the “British Invasion” then taking place in the States.
It was while Key was aboard the British ship that he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry.
The attack impressed Key so much that he sat down and wrote,
“War, huh, what is it good for?
“Say it again.”
Unfortunately, the executives at Invasion Records were not moved by the recording, and it wasn’t until many years later when it was covered by Edwin Starr that Key ever received a dime for it.
Undeterred, Key wrote:
“Well, come on all of
“you big strong men
“Uncle Sam needs your help again
“He’s got hisself in a terrible war
“Way down yonder in Baltimore.”
This song was also not picked up until Country Joe and the Fish changed the words around a little bit in the ’60s and made it a hit.
Taking a different tack, Key tried:
“Bye, bye Miss American Flag
“Drove my Chevy to the levee
“Without using the air bag;
S”inging: This’ll be the day that I die,
“This’ll be the day that I die.”
The record executives thought the song was too “downbeat.”
He then hit on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Although it took him a few tries before writing the arrangement we know today. Such as:
“Oh, babe, what you see over there to your right.
“Like a streaming e-mail, at the blue crabs a’steaming?
“Whose clam strips and hot dogs in the glowing brake light,
“O’er to Droodle Pork we seen them farworks blatantly screaming.
“And I couldn’t help think, just how great is America?
“Whose anthem can be screwed up by Christina Aguilera.”
But with a few adjustments, he had it. And the rest, as the historians like to say, is history.