Jewish World Review May 5, 2006/ 7 Iyar, 5766

Wesley Pruden

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Jose, can you see in all that glare? | Jose, can you see?

But seeing is not the same as singing, as anyone who has reached for the high notes of the "Star Spangled Banner" could tell you.

The old tale that Francis Scott Key stole the music from a Welsh drinking song is obviously rot. Not even a Welshman could reach notes that high after a night at the pub. The original, "To Anacreon in Heav'n," actually has a fancy intellectual pedigree.

The world's most unsingable national anthem has been wrapped in controversy and treachery since even before Francis Scott Key chose to write words to the hymn to Anacreon instead of something singable, or at least hummable.

President Bush is entirely innocent in this latest controversy, set off when Spanish-speaking busybodies introduced a rewritten Spanish-language version of the anthem called "Nuestro Himmo." The president, feeling heat for pushing the latest amnesty for illegal aliens, insisted stoutly that the national anthem should only be sung in English. Yesterday the White House insisted that the president can't even sing in Spanish.

Even Teddy Kennedy told Chris Matthews, that lovable old softball pitcher, that "I think the national anthem should be sung in English. Period." Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and onetime governor of the Boutique of Vermont, maybe the only pol in town with enough screeching power to reach the anthem's high notes, naturally demurs. "In Canada they sing the Canadian anthem in French and English." (But how do you say "Jacques, can you see?" in French?) Laura Bush, to further confuse us all, more or less agrees with Howard Dean. "I don't think there's anything wrong with singing it in Spanish," she said. But she changed her tune if not her mind when a reporter reminded her that the president thinks there is. "Oh, well, I think it should be sung in English, of course." But she noted that "Amazing Grace" has been translated into Swahili. So far as anyone can tell, nobody has ever tried to reach for those high notes "o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave" in Swahili, or if they did, remembers what happened next.

It's probably only fair that the anthem should be sung in English, since we wouldn't have suffered the melody in the first place but for British treachery during the War of 1812. The British firebugs who burned Washington in 1814 captured an American doctor, one William Beanes, who was a friend of Francis Scott Key. Key, a Washington lawyer (there was no K Street, but we had Washington lawyers even then) got permission from President James Madison to negotiate the doctor's freedom. This took place over dinner, even as the British officers were plotting their attack on Baltimore. Talk about "perfidious Albion!" Key won the doctor's freedom, and chartered a sloop to watch the battle from Chesapeake Bay, observing the Congreve rockets leaving trails of "red glare," and bombs with long-burning fuses "bursting in midair" against the darkling sky.

Like most of the men of his time, Key was a man of faith, and wrote several hymns, including "Before the Lord We Bow" and "Lord With Glowing Heart I Praise Thee." The final verse of the "Star Spangled Banner," which almost nobody ever sings, rings with blessed assurance: "Blest with victory and peace may the heav'n-rescued land/Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation/Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just/And this be our motto: 'In G-d is our trust'/." Lawyers from the ACLU are surely at work to save Hispanics from the abuse of these lines.

But the origin of the melody, if you can call it a melody, is not Welsh, though it ought to be since only the Welsh, who can sing anything, can manage it. "To Anacreon in Heav'n" was actually sung at meetings of London's Anacreontic Society, commemorating the Greek poet Anacreon, who wrote lavish tributes to wine and revelry five centuries before the birth of Christ. He was, you might say, the original "wine, women and song" guy. The Anacreon Society was dedicated to preserving the spirit of revelry. Not quite the number for us, some might say, particularly since we have candidates like "America the Beautiful" and even that other grand theft, "America."

Personally, like Abraham Lincoln, I've always been partial to "Dixie." Even when you don't know all the words, the tune makes a man want to stand up and holler.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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