Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Author's Corner with Marc Ferris

Marc Ferris is holds an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written for the New York Times, Newsday, and other venues. This interview is based on his new book, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely History of America's National Anthem (John Hopkins University Press, August 2014).

JF: What led you to write Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: In 1996, while sitting in a graduate history seminar at Stony Brook University, I searched for a topic to write about. As a guitarist, bass player and drummer, I wanted to combine my two interests of history and music and the thought flashed into my head: every American knows The Star-Spangled Banner. The 200th anniversary would arrive in the not-too-distant future and the song had a lot of history – and controversy – behind it: think Jimi Hendrix.

Though Americans may revere the song for its official status as the national anthem, I had never heard anyone praise the tune. All I recalled were complaints: it is hard to sing, no one can remember the words of the first verse (there are four) and it is war-like. When I realized that it took Congress 117 years from the song’s inception to make it the anthem and surmised (incorrectly) that they did so to bind the country through patriotism during the Great Depression in 1931, I figured I had a decent paper topic.

To my surprise, I discovered that few books had been written about what I contend is the most controversial song in United States history and after conducting a semester’s worth of research, I knew had discovered something big. One professor in the department implored me to drop the topic, but I never considered taking his advice and managed to assemble a sympathetic committee. I am forever be grateful to professors Richard F. Kuisel, Wilbur R. Miller and Nancy Tomes for encouraging me. They knew that I loved the subject and would not be dissuaded, so they approved the topic for my dissertation.

After receiving a Smithsonian Institution fellowship, I spent the summer of 1999 gathering sources at archives in Washington, D. C., Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland. Then, life intervened and the project stalled. I had two kids and work as a freelance writer took up a lot of time. Then, as the newspaper business plummeted, I became a public relations executive. Not getting my Ph. D. or starting on the book project became the great regret of my life. As a sports fan, I cringed every time I heard the song, knowing that I was squandering a great opportunity.

Ever since I latched onto the topic, I had always marked 2014 in my mind, since it represented the song’s bicentennial. Then, in 2012, after a few personal setbacks, inspiration struck. I realized that if 2014 came and went without my completing the project, I would hate myself, so I flipped the switch in my mind, dusted off my thigh-high mound of documents and spent every waking moment outside of work writing (except for bathing, sleeping, eating, exercising and playing music). By the end of the year, I had finished a first draft.

To this day, I am flummoxed that no one had written anything substantial about the song in the interim. Many books have appeared chronicling single tunes, including My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, America the Beautiful and God Bless America, but these titles, while interesting and informative, merely circled the bulls-eye, in my opinion. The Star-Spangled Banner is the official national anthem and obviously occupies a distinctive position in the nation’s history. Even if I had come across a competing book about the anthem, I knew that I had compiled a great trove of documents and had developed a singular interpretation of the song.

Despite the fact that just about every American has heard the anthem played many times in his or her lifetime and that the bicentennial loomed, the New York publishing houses wanted nothing to do with “serious” history, as one agent called it. I didn’t mind, knowing that it’s easy for the gatekeepers to say no. Their indifference gave me the freedom to write the book I wanted to write – based on scholarship but accessible to every American with even a passing interest in the song. Had I not been so fortunate to link up with Johns Hopkins University Press, I would have published it myself.

There is no substitute for crafting a history book based on a solid foundation of research and dynamite topical material. The one lesson I would impart to anyone taking on a major project – not just a book – is that by scooping up spoonfuls of dirt, a mountain appears.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Star Spangled Banner?

MF: Studying an important musical composition like The Star-Spangled Banner presents a unique prism to explore deeper historical trends, including in this case the intersection between patriotism and religion, known as civil religion, the use of music as propaganda and competing definitions of patriotism. The most controversial song in United States history, it is the true people’s anthem and it has exerted a strong cultural hold over American culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: Many books relate the details about how Francis Scott Key came to write the song in Baltimore harbor as the English Navy shelled Fort McHenry through the night of September 13 and 14, 1814. This book tells the rest of the story and anyone who reads it will never look at the song the same way again. Every five or six pages, a fact or issue of interpretation will cause readers to think “wow, that’s interesting, I never knew that.”

Going through the final proofs, I decided to make a list of fun facts related to the song. I quickly complied 30 without much digging. Here are five of the most interesting:

1. Shakespeare wrote the phrase “by spangled star-light sheen” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and “what Stars do Spangle heaven with such beauty?” (The Taming of the Shrew).

2. Anyone with United States currency in a pocket or purse is carrying around a paraphrase of a line in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, “In God is Our Trust,” parsed to In God We Trust and printed on coins since the Civil War and paper bills beginning in 1957.

3. The words of To Anacreon in Heaven, the song that Francis Scott Key borrowed for the melody of The Star-Spangled Banner, is a sly 1700’s paean to drinking and sex. Though understated, the line “I’ll instruct you, like me to entwine; The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine” is unambiguous.

4. In one of the most incredible ironies in United States history, a slave-owning southerner whose entire family supported the Confederacy wrote the Union anthem (Francis Scott Key, The Star-Spangled Banner), while an anti-slavery Northerner (Daniel Decatur Emmett) wrote Dixie, the Southern anthem.

5. Jimi Hendrix is hardly the first musician whose rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner anthem created a backlash: ragtime performers in the 1890’s and jazz bands in the 1930s played idiosyncratic versions that also raised an uproar. In 1968, Aretha Franklin and Jose Feliciano delivered controversial, individualistic versions of The Star-Spangled Banner almost a year before Jimi Hendrix performed his incendiary version at Woodstock.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MF: At the age of 13, my family moved to Israel for a year and living there, surrounded by ancient ruins and enmities, a love for the past seeped into my soul. I goofed off throughout high school and in my first semester of senior year, I decided to buckle down and got good grades in the required United States history course. In college, I also took a lackadaisical approach to studies until sophomore year, when, during another required course in modern United States history, I internalized the material due to an inexplicable interest and got an A on a 100 question multiple choice test.

While talking with a classmate at a party, we discussed our majors and I told him I planned to study sociology. He said “if you liked social studies last year, you should think about being a history major.” As soon as he said the word “history,” the noise faded, a light came down from the sky and the term echoed in my head. The next day I marched down to the administration office declared my new major. I am not sure whether to thank or curse Steve Essig, but from that day on, I became Mister History, finished my undergraduate years with great grades and decided that I wanted to be a history professor. I earned a Master’s Degree in the subject, taught at many top-flight institutions and entered a Ph. D. program, where I discovered a topic that I love.

JF: What is your next project?

MF: This book is in its first week of distribution and I still have a 9 to 5 job, so the next book project seems far off. I would love to conduct further research into the anthem, digging deeper into all the issues that I could only raise but not fully explore. It would be interesting to write a more journalistic book or long-form magazine article about what the anthem means to Americans of diverse backgrounds, based on concerted travel across this great land, but someone would have to fund that.

More traditional themes I would like to explore include a history of country music (it’s a lot more diverse than most people think) and a history of bourbon – the spirit. Both are experiencing exploding popularity, but I would take the same “serious” approach that I expended on the country’s anthem – based on copious research but accessible to anyone remotely interested in the topic.

JF: Great stuff, thanks Marc! I should also add that I was also a student in that 1996 Stony Brook University seminar that Marc mentioned above.  Also check out this interview with Marc on MSNBC.

Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner.