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'O Say Can You Hear'

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

America’s relationship with its national anthem is complicated. Author Mark Claguesays it both “echoes the past and gives voice to our present.”

Clague is an author and musicologist. His new book on the history of Francis Scott Key’s most famous work is called “O Say Can You Hear.

It is ananthem that resounds with the hopes of many. It also serves as witness to a country of many contradictions. There are parts we never sing anymore. 

Our guide on this historical and musical journey is Joseph Horowitz. He says America’s national anthem iscontroversial today for three main reasons:

The first is that Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words, owned slaves. The second is that Key wrote a little-known third verse that references “hireling and slave” – and we’re not really sure what that’s about. And the third reason is that we’re scrutinizing our notion of the U.S. as a historic “land of the free” as never before.

If the anthem is a problem, Davone Tines has proposed one solution: replace it with “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This song was composed around 1900 by the brothers James Weldon and R. Rosamond Johnson. Beginning around World War I, it became known as the “Black national anthem.”

Whether it is on this day, or those other days when hope and history rhymes, Americans will take to their feet and sing that their flag is still there.

This is a “More Than Music” production, scripted and edited by Joseph Horowitz. The technical producer was Peter Bogdanoff. Earlier ‘More Than Music’ programs can be found here, here, here and here.

Copyright 2022 WAMU 88.5

Rupert Allman