Saturday 4 July 2015

Anacreon's Star-Spangled Banner

July 4th is a good moment to cross the north Atlantic EASTWARDS. My last week, spent in California, featured THREE separate Americans gratuitously informing me that their country is no longer a British colony.

This has never happened to me before. I believe their new compulsion is caused by the widespread use of a photoshopped image of the Union Jack flying outside the White House as an example of anachronistic flag use akin to flying the Confederate flag subsequent to the Civil War.
The Image that has Annoyed America

I am hereby retaliating against those Americans who imagine that I yearn to rule them from Westminster by informing them of the history, which goes back to ancient Greece, of their turgid national anthem, ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’

Anacreon having an Un-American Good Time
The poet Anacreon invented the Drink-and-Sex-Orgy-Poem. Born in the exotic Aegean in the sixth century BC, he hung out in the courts of tyrants. One of his poems celebrates a months’-long boozy bender; others contemplate erotic adventures with teenaged boys and girls.

Anacreon’s sleazy reputation led to his adoption as patron poet by the 18th-century Anacreontic Society which met, decades after the Puritan Party-Poopers had sailed for New England, in the Crown & Anchor Tavern on the Strand. One member, Ralph Tomlinson, composed a constitutional song called ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’. Its silly words describe Olympian gods’ patronage of heavy drinking and sex amongst London gentlemen. ‘May our Club flourish happy, united, and free! / And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine / The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine.’
Crown and Anchor is on the right

The melody, by John Stafford Smith (an Anacreontic scion of my diocesan cathedral in Gloucester), is ridiculously difficult to sing. Spanning over an octave and a half, with steep arpeggios, it was probably designed to stretch the vocal capacities of inebriated Georgian Londoners to humorous effect. Just tune in to the Women’s World Cup Football final tomorrow (BBC1, from 2310) and listen to the impressive USA team (playing Japan) flunk it. You will get what I mean.

Tune (and some of the words) to Star-Spangled Banner
In 1814 a Maryland lawyer named Francis Scott Key watched British units bombard the American forces in Baltimore, and wrote his mediocre patriotic poem ‘Defence of Fort McHenry’ in response.   Set to the melody of the (by then well-known) drinking song ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’, or 'Anacreontic Song', imitating some of its phrases, and renamed ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, it was finally adopted as official American national anthem by order of President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Its lyrics imply that there was no such thing as a ‘hireling or slave’ in North America in 1814—these were solely British phenomena:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

So next time you hear American larynxes struggle with the precipitous intervals in their national anthem, let alone its improbable lyrics, remember its debauched origins. Anacreon, as celebrant of recreational sex and alcohol consumption, is a wonderfully inappropriate spokesman for the Land of The Free, of Prohibition, Mormonism, the NRA, Texan fundamentalists and the highest percentage of prisoners relative to free citizens anywhere in the world.  Happy Independence Day! Happy World Cup Final Singalong!

1 comment:

  1. I'm afraid the Anacreontic Society wasn't quite as exciting as you suggest: there's no evidence of any sex -- just rich men eating, drinking, and enjoying music.

    I think the reference to "slave" may be a comment on the practice of impressment into the Navy, which was one of the causes of the War of 1812 (the Royal Navy had a habit of taking sailors from American-flagged vessels and forcing them into its ranks).