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Irvin Molotsky on the story of the 'Star-Spangled Banner'


Irvin Molotsky is the author of "The Flag, the Poet, and the Song," a book that tells the story behind "The Star Spangled Banner." Molotsky is a former reporter and editor for the New York Times.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Irvin Molotsky, and welcome.

MOLOTSKY: Hello from Paris!

CNN: How did you come to write your book, "The Flag, the Poet, and the Song"?

MOLOTSKY: Up until very recently, I was a reporter and editor for the New York Times. I was with them for 34 years, until I took early retirement in April. In 1999, I wrote an article for the New York Times, one of several that I wrote, on the efforts by the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, to preserve the very flag that Francis Scott Key saw during the attack on Baltimore by the British during the War of 1812 -- the same flag that inspired him to write the poem, which became the Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem.


The display on the story was very attractive, and it caught the eye of an editor at Dutton, Doug Grad. Doug suggested that I write a book about the flag, and the poet, and the National Anthem. I got permission from the editors at the New York Times to do this. And I wrote the book. I have since taken early retirement from the New York Times, and the reason that I'm speaking to you from Paris is that I will be working every summer in Paris at the International Herald Tribune as a copy editor.

CNN: How did "The Star-Spangled Banner" come to be our national anthem?

MOLOTSKY: It became our national anthem when it was signed into law in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover. That came after a long period of lobbying and pushing for it by civic organizations, patriotic groups, and veterans who felt we should have an official national anthem. In other words, up until 1931, the United States did not have an official national anthem.

CHAT AUDIENCE: What served as the national anthem prior to Hoover making that song official in 1931?

MOLOTSKY: Before 1931, there was no national anthem. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was performed by the military bands of both the North and the South during the Civil War, but it was not the national anthem of either the North or the South. By the 1890's, the Army and the Navy both adopted "The Star-Spangled Banner" as their anthems, but the government itself did not, and World War I caused a renewal of patriotism. Veterans who fought in the war became influential in the period immediately following the war, especially the veterans of foreign wars, and they pushed for adoption of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as our national anthem.

CHAT AUDIENCE: What can you tell us about the poet? Background, how he ended up there at that moment, and whatever happened to him?

MOLOTSKY: Francis Scott Key was a lawyer in Georgetown, which we know now as a neighborhood in Washington, but at that time was a separate community when he was growing up. One of the things that I found interesting about Key was that he owned slaves. I had never learned this as a child, and it came as a surprise to me that the man who wrote a poem whose lyrics included "the land of the free" actually owned slaves.

CNN: What are some of the most common misconceptions about "The Star-Spangled Banner"?

MOLOTSKY: The music that Francis Scott Key used to set his poem to was an old English drinking song. A lot of people are not aware of that, although I don't know that it's a misconception. The song was very popular in the United States. It was a song that he would have heard in the inns, the taverns of the day. People took the song, and applied their own words to it. They made parodies of the English drinking song to fit it into American society. Key certainly was aware of that song, and he had it in his head when he wrote the poem, because the poem follows the notes in the song, note for note. The name of the English drinking song was "To Anacreon in Heaven," and when the Star-Spangled Banner was first published in Baltimore, the publisher put on the sheet "to the tune of Anacreon," so everyone knew the tune already, and applied Key's words to it.

CHAT AUDIENCE: What other songs were being considered?

MOLOTSKY: Yes. At the time that Congress was considering "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem, and it was the favorite, but others included "America the Beautiful," and, of all things, "Yankee Doodle." Some people objected to "The Star-Spangled Banner," because some of its lyrics speak of war. They said it was suitable during a time of war, but since we hoped that our nation would be at peace most of the time, it would not be appropriate to have a martial song as our national anthem.

CHAT AUDIENCE: Has there ever been a serious movement to change the national anthem to something else?

MOLOTSKY: Yes, there has. People in Congress since 1931 have introduced legislation to change the national anthem. The one that got the most support was the Irving Berlin song, "God Bless America." Liberals, people from the sixties, have advocated the Woody Guthrie song, "This Land is Your Land." Neither of these have gotten very far as replacements for "The Star- Spangled Banner" as the national anthem.

CHAT AUDIENCE: How did it develop into a song sung before sports?

MOLOTSKY: There is some question as to when that first occurred. There are some reports that it was first sung at a sporting event in the 1880's, but there is no proof of this. The first performance that we find at a sporting event was in the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. 1918 was a time of war for the United States, and the anthem was played in Chicago during the seventh inning stretch. When the series then moved to Boston, to the Red Sox, the owner of the Red Sox put it at the beginning of the game, rather than at the seventh inning stretch. This is the first documented use of the national anthem at the beginning of a sporting event.

Then we have a little uncertain history, it was in and out. But during World War II, another period of heightened patriotism, the national anthem was reintroduced for sporting events, and now it is performed at every sporting event, although most people don't pay attention to it. People do pay attention at things like the World Series or the Super Bowl, because celebrities have been invited to perform it, sometimes without good results.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

MOLOTSKY: Yes. There is a British general whose death may have contributed substantially to the American victory in Baltimore in 1814. His name was Robert Ross. He is virtually unknown to Americans, but he was a great British general, and he was leading the British soldiers on land toward Baltimore, while Francis Scott Key was on a prisoners boat in the harbor. An American sniper shot General Ross and killed him. It is possible that if Ross had not been killed, that he might have captured Baltimore, and if he had done that, it would have changed the course of the War of 1812. Of course, we will never know what might have been.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Irvin Molotsky.

MOLOTSKY: Good-bye!

Irvin Molotsky joined the chat via telephone from France. provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Tuesday, July 03, 2001.

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