The Full-Length Banner

By Bill Higgins: This item is five years old, or in another sense, twenty-six, but I’ve just learned of it.

Isaac Asimov loved “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Fandom’s music maven Matthew B. Tepper writes: “In March, 1991, Isaac Asimov published an essay in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction entitled ‘All Four Stanzas.’ In it, he gave the background of Francis Scott Key’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ (as it has come to be called), and perhaps just as remarkably, speaks of his own love of the anthem, and his habit of singing it with all four stanzas, not just the first one which is generally heard.”

In 2012, Mr. Tepper contributed to YouTube a 1991 audio recording of Asimov, aged 71, singing all four stanzas. Though Asimov’s wit was renowned, he performs here in perfect seriousness.

Asimov’s memorable essay on the song has been rewritten, and appears in garbled form on many sites around the Internet.  Tepper also points out that in 2010,  Eric Scheie made an effort to rescue “All Four Stanzas” from mutilation.  Scheie tracked down the original essay, posted scans of the F&SF pages on which it appeared, and presented an HTML version:

In this moment, while Americans are focusing new attention on “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the meanings with which we invest it, it may be interesting to hear it sung by one who, while granting that his nation had its flaws, greatly loved its anthem– all four stanzas of it.

19 thoughts on “The Full-Length Banner

  1. @Jenora Feuer

    Well, they can fake it pretty well. And to their credit, Canadian sports fans know of the Star Spangled Banner well enough to properly honor our teams when they visit north of the border. I wish I could say that American sports fans had the knowledge to be equally prepared.

    For those that don’t know, there have been a couple of recent instances where the singer’s microphone went out at that start of international games that were held in Canadian cities. The tradition for such games is for the singer to sing the anthems from both sides of the border. The fans attending those games covered for the malfunctioning sound equipment by singing the US national anthem.

    We usually attend baseball games and haven’t been to any games where we were hosting a Canadian club. So I don’t know if the club puts the words to O Canada on the jumbo-tron as is frequently done with the SSB.


  2. The first verse of O Canada makes perfect sense in itself, whereas the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner ends on a cliffhanger. Does it still wave? Unless we hear the other verses, we will never know.

  3. Andrew M: Does it still wave? Unless we hear the other verses, we will never know.

    Wouldn’t you assume it’s still waving, for the same reasons we expect the heroic point of view character in a story to survive?

  4. Dann: I wish I could say that American sports fans had the knowledge to be equally prepared.

    The last time I saw the Dodgers play the Montreal Expos (in the previous century…) they played the Canadian anthem and put the lyrics on the scoreboard. Fan preparation didn’t enter into it.

  5. @Mike

    Good to know. The implication from the videos I saw was that our Canadian friends did the anthem a cappella and without jumbo-tron prompting.

    I live close enough to Canada that our water supply is contaminated by their excess maple syrup and Tim Horton’s coffee grounds…and I still don’t know their anthem well enough.


  6. I’d consider this a charming anecdote save Isaac’s profession of admiration for stanzas that include this passage: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”

    “The land of the free”? Not so much.

  7. Asimov might not have been aware that escaped American slaves were enlisting with the British with the promise of their freedom and that’s what the ‘slave’ bit meant. Since Isaac expressed full knowledge of the injustice of slavery in that article, I’d guess he didn’t know it,as I would like to think he’d have enjoyed that bit less if he did.

  8. jayn: The last two pages of Asimov’s article (scans p. 5 and 6) include repeated condemnations of slavery (while analyzing the fourth stanza of The Star Spangled Banner.) Therefore it would be a very strange omission from Asimov’s comments on the third stanza if he knew about the freed slaves in the Colonial Corps of Marines.

  9. Asimov does Key a slight injustice in scan #5. I’ll quote him:

    The fourth stanza as I’ve given it here is the way I sing it. I have taken the liberty of making two small changes from the way the song appears in the reference books and, presumably then, the way that Key wrote it.

    In the fourth line, Key wrote, “Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just.” Key was writing about the War of 1812, when, as I believe, our cause was just, but I am not ready to assume that our cause is always just.

    But in fact Key’s original manuscript survives, and in our modern era is available for our own perusal at any time. This link will show you the Maryland Historical Society’s scan.

    It’s a little small, and hard to read, but if you look closely at the fourth line from the bottom, it is quite possible to make out that Key wrote when, and not for. So he was not the jingoist that Asimov thought! (Of course the blame for this must be put on the authors of Asimov’s reference books, who probably were.)

  10. I remember reading that essay when it was first published. Here in Baltimore, of course, the anthem is a Sacred Text, so I was glad to see Asimov’s defense of it. (Our Maryland state song, on the other hand, with its lyrics about “Northern scum,” is an embarrassment.)

    Reader’s Digest reprinted the article (I thought it was cool that they had even spotted it in F&SF), but they scrubbed most of the interest out of it, basically reprinting the poem with a few facts about it, with little of Asimov’s own voice remaining.

    I don’t know, if we were voting from scratch about what we wanted as an anthem, if I would support The Star-Spangled Banner. I’d probably want something less warlike. But since we have it, I want to keep it until we find something that’s demonstrably better. Certainly not God Bless America, which is always trotted out as a potential replacement. (I was once actually assaulted by a drunken fan at a ballpark for not taking my hat off for God Bless America.) I could accept America the Beautiful, though it too invokes God (as does the Banner). This Land Is Your Land, the other current candidate, is certainly more to my taste (Woody Guthrie wrote it in direct response to God Bless America), but I don’t think I would propose a liberal text as the national anthem any more than I would a conservative one.

    Anyway, I certainly enjoyed reading the Asimov article again.

  11. Granted, this Canadian can sing the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner a capella. Granted, that’s partly because I actually did at one point. (I was working at Microsoft in Redmond on a co-op work term; ended up as part of their choir singing the Star Spangled Banner to open a Seattle Mariners baseball game. Yes, Microsoft had an in-house choir: the Microtones.)

    I’ll always remember once during the practice for that, a lot of us were starting to get a little tired in general, and we’d just done a rather uninspiring rendition. The choir director folded his arms, looked at us, and said, “How many of you are not Americans?”

    About a third of the group put their hands up.

    Without missing a beat, the director said, “The rest of you have no excuse.”

  12. Asimov might not have been aware that escaped American slaves were enlisting with the British with the promise of their freedom and that’s what the ‘slave’ bit meant.

    Asimov was so well read I think it’s safe to assume he was fully versed on the implications of the slave and grave references. He just chose to overlook them.

    I’ve never sat for an anthem but I’m glad athletes are using it as a vehicle for dissent. To me that’s more American than the attacks on them, which treat standing as if it should be compulsory. People who want a society where patriotism is compelled should emigrate to North Korea.

  13. Haha, OMG! I’d never read the lyrics of the US Anthem before so I did it now. And burst into laughter at this line:

    “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,”

    The first time I heard the anthem was in The Naked Gun and as the rest of the movie is a comedy, I thought that line was made up for the movie. Perhaps as a satire of the bombing of Libya or something. Of course, it was a very mangled version and I think the singing ended somewhere around that line, so I never got the context.

  14. Most Canadians don’t know anything but the first verse of O Canada either.

    Pssssh. Most of us (of my generation, at least) can sing half of it in French.

  15. Asimov wrote about “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its historical background on at least two other occasions, to my knowledge. One was in The Birth of the United States (Houghton Mifflin, 1974, pp. 239-240), and the other in Familiar Poems, Annotated (Doubleday, 1976, pp. 163-171). In neither place does he address the “hireling and slave” remark, except to suggest (in the more detailed analysis in Poems) that Key was referring to the Hessians who fought on the side of the British in the Revolutionary War, but not in the War of 1812. It has the air of grasping at straws, but what of it? Asimov’s opposition to slavery is clear in many of his works, particularly this F&SF essay, but he lets the matter pass. Perhaps he felt it was trivial, and that Key put the line in simply for the meter and the rhyme?

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