John Williams raised his baton, and on the downbeat the music began. It wasn’t some star-studded movie music he was conducting, but music much older, with words we all know. The words are 200 years old, and are as stirring today as they were in 1814.
We were watching the televised July 4th program from the National Mall in Washington DC. At least we recognized the place as the Mall, but really, you couldn’t see the ground, so many citizens had come out to say Happy Birthday to our land.
I imagine that The Star Spangled Banner is one of the first songs we Americans learn as children, probably soon after Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It is a song we have all sung at ball games and ceremonies and graduations and sometimes, if you’re like me, you even sing it to yourself. Not all of it. Nobody remembers all of it, according to the WW-II movies, anyway. Only spies did that, and that was how you tricked them into revealing themselves. It isn’t because it is so complicated, I suspect, but more because we all want to get on with whatever has brought us together in the first place. Besides, it’s hard to sing. High notes and twisty cadences and things only the music-minded really understand. But we make the effort.
I’ve sung it so many times, in places I can’t even recall, with even worse voices than mine helping make the words ring out. And yes, it has been sung to different music (they call it music, anyway, whoever they are who sing it that way), but to me, regardless of where, regardless of the quality of the music or the voices sharing the moment, this is still “The Song.” It is the song of freedom, the song of longing for peace, the song of aspiration and faith in a future we can’t always see. But we can hear it in the words.
No matter how many times I’ve heard it, how often I’ve stood with my hand over my heart or fingertips touching forehead, it still reaches me, touches me, makes me stand a little straighter, a little taller. That’s real music. Two-hundred years! That’s a long time for song to be in the top ten.
For me, it is always number one!