By Dawn’s Early Light

A few weeks ago I attended festival in the Midwest known as, “The Highland Games”.

My brother was competing in the bagpipe showdown, and the rest of the family tagged along to ogle the cable tossing and prance with the country dancers.

But the main event was the mass band of pipes, initiated by the playing and singing of every National Anthem of every country ever.

Well, okay, the anthems of Britain, Canada, Scotland, and the good ol’ US of A.

And several things struck me about these songs.

First, the lyrics of both Britain’s and Canada’s anthem are a trifle . . . . insipid.  Each only has about 6 words total, with word order varied slightly. I am sorry to all you British and Canadians, but it is true.

Second, I never realized that “Scotland the Brave” had words! Quite pretty, purposeful, and pugnacious words, at that. Scotland, rock on.

And third, my own national anthem holds more power than I ever realized.

After the Scottish song faded, there was quite a bit of cheering. It was nice.

But when the opening bars of “The Star Spangled Banner” resounded, suddenly every single person in the stadium stood up. Almost as one, we placed our hand on our hearts, and joined in singing.

And I was shocked to find tears running down my face. Attempts to staunch them only led to more weeping.

When the song was finished, the applause was thunderous. It actually drowned out the 60 or so bagpipes.


I might be a mite prejudiced. Were I British or Canadian I might love their anthems as well.

But in my secretest of secret hearts, I doubt it.

“The Star Spangled Banner” is a song that can rally troops, and unite complete strangers. This is a song that somehow captures what it means to be an America. It hold the hope, courage, strength, and sheer stubbornness that have marked the American character from the moment that the Founding Fathers pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to this fledgling country. This song has both narrative drive and spiritual pull.

For a song with not even 200 years of use behind it, (and only half of those as the official “National Anthem”,) it still can call forth the National Identity and Pride.

The American National Anthem was written in during the War of 1812 by a Baltimore Lawyer and mediocre poet, Francis Scot Key. Key had been in negotiation with the British for a prisoner exchange, and when the battle for Fort McHenry began the British would not let him leave their ship. He spent the night on the British command ship, wondering if his own countrymen were surviving the heavy artillery siege.

As day break began to illuminate the horizon, Key peered through the mist and gun smoke to see the American flag still flying high over the fort, torn and stained, but steady. That moment of pride in his country led keys to write a poem, and later set it to music. (The music was actually a popular piece that had begun as the anthem of a drinking society, but was then used as a hymn setting.)

And Key got it right. This is poetry that shares that moment of struggle and triumph with every American.

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
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.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

On the birthday of this beautiful Country, may God bless and protect us, and give us the courage to continue to pursue and defend Freedom.


3 thoughts on “By Dawn’s Early Light

  1. Happy Fourth! (on the fifth!) Thanks for posting the other verses of the anthem — we usually, sadly, forget those, but they’re just as important.

    And aye about the anthems. “Flower of Scotland” is a beautiful, poignant one, to be sure, but there’s something so rousingly powerful about the American anthems that really seems unique. We’re biased, yes, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong…+)

  2. A thoughtful, patriotic post, my friend.

    And now for something completely different…

    When I was little, I read some of the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. In one of them, young Ramona asks her elder sister “Beezus” (Beatrice) what a “dawnzer lee light” is, because they sing about it at school. I’ve always thought that was pretty funny.

  3. I have a fondness for “God Save the Queen,” but more for the tune than the words, and the French lyrics for “O Canada” are pretty neat. However, I agree with you. I think you captured the fundamental difference between the Canadian and British national anthems and our own with the word “narrative.”

    Most national anthems are written as, well, national anthems. They are constructed from national feeling to communicate patriotism. The “Star Spangled Banner” tells a story, and let’s face it, a story is far better at communicating such feelings without being trite than more direct language. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront of my mind. 🙂

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