Thursday, October 07, 2004

Reading Francis Scott in the Key of Jimi

i finally got some work done, this is the first of a series of essays that will look at political poetry.
Today I would like to examine the most infamous performance of what is probably the most famous political poem in the USA, ‘The Defence of Fort McHenry’. Written in 1814 by a lawyer and amateur poet on a sloop outside of Baltimore Harbor during a naval bombardment of Fort McHenry, the poem was published widely in American newspapers in the days and weeks after the battle. It became famous as a poem but became immortal when re-published by a Baltimore sheet music publisher as a song, under the name ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ It has always struck me as curious that discussions of ‘Political Poetry’ (by ‘Political Poetry’ I mean poems with socio-political import or concern) seldom mention this poem, despite the fact that its prevalence in American culture is at least a tacit admission of the power of poems to speak to ideas and concepts of deep socio-political impact. Perhaps this is simply due to the fact that people most commonly encounter the poem as a song, and therefore think of it as only such. It was however, conceived, written and originally published as a poem, and the fact that it could be sung to the tune of ‘To Anacreon in Heaven Forever’ (an English drinking song) had to be pointed out the poet by his brother-in-law Judge Joseph Nicholson. (This is not a unique feature of this poem. Metrical poems with a verse and chorus structure are often set to music, or sung to preexisting melodies. Some poems without such a structure share this feature, such as the poems of Emily Dickinson which can almost all be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas’).
Many people think of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ as political only because it is the National Anthem, failing to realize that it became so (in 1931) because of its popularity resulting from its nationalistic political overtones. It would be almost impossible for a poem to have as its central image the national flag, depicted surviving an invasion of the country by a foreign power and for that poem not to be political. Written right after the British had captured Washington, DC and burned the (not yet) White House, the poem was published and re-published because it encapsulated a moment in the battle that could stand as symbolic of the entire young nation in its moment of crisis. That is, that like the battle-scarred flag that remained after the fierce bombardment, the nation would persevere and remain intact and free after winning the war with the British. But, the song became and remained popular (it was commonly sung at the beginnings of baseball games during WW1, before it became the national anthem) because it symbolized something important about the ideals on which the country was founded. That those ideals had to be fiercely fought for, and that the battle for them is ongoing (as the passage of the insidiously named Patriot Act reminds us) and never ending. An assertion of the poem’s fourth stanza that “this be our motto ‘in God is our trust’, is the source of the National Motto “In God we trust” adopted in 1954. This epitomizes the power of poetry to utilize images to communicate with readers in a deeply emotional and powerful manner.
The poem has an interesting structure, each of the firs three stanzas opens with a question, and these questions are answered in the fourth stanza. The first stanza, which is the only one most Americans know (if they know it at all) is normally the only one sung, and is itself composed of three questions. Each line ranges from 11 to 13 syllables and overall average about 12 to a line.

O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The first verse is capable of standing alone as a complete poem or song, which is probably one of the reasons that the others are rarely sung. The fact that the third question of the first verse “O Say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave . . .” is left unanswered at the end gives the song its timeless quality. It also does not hurt that it can be interpreted as two different questions:

1. Does the flag still wave, as in Did it survive the battle ? (Key’s original intent)
2. Does the flag still wave over a free independent country?

The second question can continually be asked in times of crisis, which would explain its rise in popularity during WW1. In fact, in 1916 President Wilson ordered that the song be played on military occasions. Key’s use of a question as a rhetorical device, and use of a central concrete image “the star-spangled banner” as a symbol gives the poem its power. And allows (the first verse at least) to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’ and leave it open to some interpretation thereby avoiding the two most common pitfalls that plague the majority of poorly written political poems. However, as the National Anthem the song has also become a magnet for political protest, particularly by African-Americans who feel that the country might not be achieving the ideals espoused in the poem. The most world renowned of these protests occurred in 1968 during the Olympic games in Mexico City. Two US sprinters, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, winners of the 200 meter dash stood barefoot on the medal podium and during the customary playing of the national anthem of the gold medallist, each lowered their head and simultaneously raised a single black-gloved fist. This silent act of rebellion so enraged IOC and US Olympic officials, that Carlos and John were immediately withdrawn from the upcoming relays, stripped of their medals, barred from the Olympic Village and ordered to leave Mexico City. Coming, as it did in the summer of ’68 it is entirely possible that this protest inspired Jimi Hendrix to begin playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” during his concerts the following year. Early in ’69 Hendrix played the song first in Stockholm, Sweden and then in Los Angeles, CA. It was however, his performance of the song on the last day of Woodstock that was captured on film and quickly became the most infamous instrumental performance in the song’s history. Hendrix’s brilliant use of the song to protest the expanded bombing (now including Cambodia and Laos) of the ongoing Viet Nam war sears into the senses like an aural burning of the flag. To many conservatives it sounds like a simple-minded desecration of the song by a guitarist in the midst of an LSD-induced rage. A careful and close reader however, cannot help but acknowledge it as pure genius. Hendrix’s particular genius lay in his use of the guitar to play not only music (melodies and harmonies), but also to create sound effects that illustrate the actions depicted by certain lyrics. Jimi’s use of the poem’s words, although never actually spoken may be the most remarkable thing about the entire performance. The key is to recite the lyrics as Jimi plays them. He opens with a bluesy but otherwise straightforward rendition of the song up until the words ‘the rocket’s red glare’, at this point he stops playing the melody and reproduces the sound of an incoming rocket and its explosion and resulting chaos. Another incoming rocket, a second explosion, and then screams and wails of anguish follow this. There is a third incoming rocket and explosion and then from amidst the roar of distorted feedback emerges a single musical phrase, the part of the melody which accompanies the words ‘the bombs bursting in air.’ The isolation of this single phrase makes it clear that this is a deliberate protest to the current bombing of Viet Nam. To eliminate any question about his intent, Hendrix (who served in the US Army in the 101st Airborne) follows the phrase ‘the bombs bursting in air’ with the sound of an air raid siren, then a duplication of roaring jet engines, and then the distinctive and unmistakable whistle of bombs falling through the air and exploding. Unlike the explosions of the earlier rockets, these explosions are much lower and more massive (this was the war the created the phrase ‘carpet-bombing’) and are followed by extended screams and cries of anguish. Hendrix then returns to next the part of the melody that corresponds with the lyrics ‘gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.’ He then delivers his ‘coup de grace’, interpolating almost two bars of the song “Taps.” This is probably the most stunningly creative and apt part of the entire performance, since the song “Taps” was composed by US Army General Daniel Adams Butterfield during the Civil War and is primarily used by the Army for two occasions; the nightly lowering and folding of the Post flag, and at military funerals right after the folding and presentation of the flag. Thus, “Taps” directly connects the US Army, the US flag, nightfall, and death. In fact, the song’s first verse concludes with the words ‘falls the night’, and its third verse concludes ‘Friend, Good Night.’ Hendrix follows this snippet of “Taps” with the third and concluding question of the first verse, ‘Oh Say does that star-spangled banner yet wave’, letting the notes of the word ‘wave’ trail and hang like a flag in a stiff breeze. He then continues with ‘O’er the land of the free’ and here he lets the notes of the word ‘free’ feedback into a high-pitched whistle which then plunges and falls like the earlier bomb sounds. The pun on the word ‘freefall’ is almost certainly intended, since that word is a perfect description of how bombs descend from planes, and Hendrix concludes with ‘and the home of the brave.’ His pause after the word ‘wave’ highlights the fact that the last question is really two different questions, and foregrounds the second of the two questions. Given that the original poem was written after a naval bombardment and that Hendrix’s recital (even though instrumental) foregrounds the poem’s words to protest the US bombing of another country, I would argue that this is an example of political performance poetry.
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