The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Oh say, Can You See Common Sense? On Independence Day -– the Fourth of July -– let us recall how the national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” has evolved. Standards of social justice and definitions of independence should also do so. | July 4, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Today –- July 4, 2014 — is Independence Day in the United States.


We will celebrate with food, drink and fireworks as well as parades and social events.

But make no mistake: Our celebrations have changed, necessarily, with history.

Despite what some misdirected U.S. Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia (below top), Clarence Thomas and others think with their so-called “originalism,” we all live in history.

antonin scalia rants

Supreme Court 2010

The assumptions and interpretations of Originalism have been debunked by many scholarly professors who specialize in 18th-century American discourse and law, and whose research disproves those same assumptions and interpretations to be mistaken.

To The Ear, it is kind of like hearing the radically conservative activists of the Right Wing accuse leftists and liberals of being activist: Name-calling hypocrisy dressed up in new clothes.

Here is a link to an overview critique of Originalism, both the new and old kinds:

It amounts to this: Whether as individuals or a society, we all change through time.

And so justice and so does music.

The Ear recalls the movements, once fringe and now mainstream, that brought us period instrument and historically informed performances.

That is why we now hear such Baroque masters as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi so differently.

It is also why we hear many other Baroque composers and early music masters that were ignored before.

That is why we now say, “The United States is,” while before the Civil War we said “The United States are.”

Usage evolves. It has to.

That is also why we hear and sing the country’s national anthem -– “The Star-Spangled Banner” -– differently today than we once did. (below is a first edition of the national anthem from the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.)

Star-Spangled Banner first edition Clements Library University fo Michigan

Here is a line to an extended story with more details about the historical evolution of our national anthem in The New York Times:

Have a Happy and Safe Fourth of July.

And here is the most popular version — with more than 7 million hits and many outrageous listener comments to read — of the national anthem that The Ear could find on YouTube:



  1. I always like to point out that the lyrics to the National Anthem pose a question. It must be answered every day by every generation. It is not being answered very bravely today on the California border.

    Does that Star-Spangled banner still wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

    Comment by Ron McCrea — July 4, 2014 @ 2:47 pm

  2. Happy Independence Day to you, Peg and Phil!  And let’s ignore the National Anthem with the Bombs in the Air!!  Right?  Time for beautiful America and nurturing plants in your new garden. NO MORE WAR!!!!!!  This and lots of Independence Day love from the old Historian and his side-kick who is planning to re-read “The Blessed Company” and sing “Yankee Doddle”  And pray for our poor, sad suffering world!  Nancy and John


    Comment by Nancy Nelson — July 4, 2014 @ 11:17 am

  3. Well done, Ear. I much appreciated the intellectual discourse vs. a simply column on variations in the “SSB.” You are always an interesting and often a valuable read.

    Comment by Michael Muckian — July 4, 2014 @ 9:21 am

  4. Thanks for looking at interpretations of the song along with interpretations of the Constitution – an excellent parallel. The linked critique of originalism was great. As for the song, my high school band director (trumpeter DoC DeHaven) took it at the original tempo, constantly telling us, “This is not a dirge – it’s a celebration! Pick it up!”

    Comment by Steve Rankin — July 4, 2014 @ 8:06 am

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