Asimov’s tribute to the national anthem

The song’s popularity increased enormously during the Civil War. Because the song extolled the national flag—a symbol of loyalty to the Union—Northerners enthusiastically embraced it as a patriotic anthem.

In times of crisis and turmoil, Americans often turn to patriotic symbols for inspiration. Caption from the National Museum of American History (Smithosonian): Elmira Cornet Band, Civil War The song’s popularity increased enormously during the Civil War. Because the song extolled the national flag—a symbol of loyalty to the Union—Northerners enthusiastically embraced it as a patriotic anthem.

The scientist, science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov at one time held the title for the most published human being ever. There were few topics he didn’t have a learned opinion on, and there were many areas of ignorance where a well-trained scientist with a drive to get at the facts could shed a lot of light. His path lighting was not always appreciated. He wrote a guide to the Bible that has earned disdain from many a Christian conservative, thought I suspect that their disdain is really a disguise for the fear that a secular Jew could know the text so well and challenge so many unwarranted, but common, assumptions.

To the surprise of some, Asimov was quite a patriot. His short piece on the four stanzas of the “Star-spangled Banner” demonstrate his patriotism and his love of history, while offering a bit of humor to make it all stick in your mind. I post a complete copy below the fold.

I have not yet found the original publication source for Asimov’s piece; if you know it, or find it, please let me know. I suspect there is copyright attribution to be made, too. I borrowed the text from an on-line source called The Purewater Gazette.

From Dr. Asimov:

I have a weakness–I am crazy, absolutely nuts, about our national anthem.

The words are difficult and the tune is almost impossible, but frequently when I’m taking a shower I sing it with as much power and emotion as I can. It shakes me up every time.

I was once asked to speak at a luncheon. Taking my life in my hands, I announced I was going to sing our national anthem–all four stanzas.

This was greeted with loud groans. One man closed the door to the kitchen, where the noise of dishes and cutlery was loud and distracting. “Thanks, Herb,” I said.

“That’s all right,” he said. “It was at the request of the kitchen staff.”

I explained the background of the anthem and then sang all four stanzas.

Let me tell you, those people had never heard it before–or had never really listened. I got a standing ovation. But it was not me; it was the anthem.

More recently, while conducting a seminar, I told my students the story of the anthem and sang all four stanzas. Again there was a wild ovation and prolonged applause. And again, it was the anthem and not me.

So now let me tell you how it came to be written.

In 1812, the United States went to war with Great Britain, primarily over freedom of the seas. We were in the right. For two years, we held off the British, even though we were still a rather weak country. Great Britain was in a life and death struggle with Napoleon. In fact, just as the United States declared war, Napoleon marched off to invade Russia. If he won, as everyone expected, he would control Europe, and Great Britain would be isolated. It was no time for her to be involved in an American war.

At first, our seamen proved better than the British. After we won a battle on Lake Erie in 1813, the American commander, Oliver Hazard Perry, sent the message “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” However, the weight of the British navy beat down our ships eventually. New England, hard-hit by a tightening blockade, threatened secession.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was beaten in Russia and in 1814 was forced to abdicate. Great Britain now turned its attention to the United States, launching a three-pronged attack. The northern prong was to come down Lake Champlain toward New York and seize parts of New England. The southern prong was to go up the Mississippi, take New Orleans and paralyze the west. The central prong was to head for the mid-Atlantic states and then attack Baltimore, the greatest port south of New York. If Baltimore was taken, the nation, which still hugged the Atlantic coast, could be split in two. The fate of the United States, then, rested to a large extent on the success or failure of the central prong.

The British reached the American coast, and on August 24, 1814, took Washington, D. C. Then they moved up the Chesapeake Bay toward Baltimore. On September 12, they arrived and found 1000 men in Fort McHenry, whose guns controlled the harbor. If the British wished to take Baltimore, they would have to take the fort.

On one of the British ships was an aged physician, William Beanes, who had been arrested in Maryland and brought along as a prisoner. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and friend of the physician, had come to the ship to negotiate his release. The British captain was willing, but the two Americans would have to wait. It was now the night of September 13, and the bombardment of Fort McHenry was about to start.

As twilight deepened, Key and Beanes saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. Through the night, they heard bombs bursting and saw the red glare of rockets. They knew the fort was resisting and the American flag was still flying. But toward morning the bombardment ceased, and a dread silence fell. Either Fort McHenry had surrendered and the British flag flew above it, or the bombardment had failed and the American flag still flew.

As dawn began to brighten the eastern sky, Key and Beanes stared out at the fort, tyring to see which flag flew over it. He and the physician must have asked each other over and over, “Can you see the flag?”

After it was all finished, Key wrote a four stanza poem telling the events of the night. Called “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” it was published in newspapers and swept the nation. Someone noted that the words fit an old English tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” –a difficult melody with an uncomfortably large vocal range. For obvious reasons, Key’s work became known as “The Star Spangled Banner,” and in 1931 Congress declared it the official anthem of the United States.

Now that you know the story, here are the words. Presumably, the old doctor is speaking. This is what he asks Key:

Oh! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
W hat 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 rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.
Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

“Ramparts,” in case you don’t know, are the protective walls or other elevations that surround a fort. The first stanza asks a question. The second gives an answer:

On the shore, dimly seen thro’ the mist 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 on the stream
‘Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

“The towering steep” is again, the ramparts. The bombardment has failed, and the British can do nothing more but sail away, their mission a failure.

In the third stanza, I feel Key allows himself to gloat over the American triumph. In the aftermath of the bombardment, Key probably was in no mood to act otherwise.

During World War II, when the British were our staunchest allies, this third stanza was not sung. However, I know it, so here it is:

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 footstep’s 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.

The fourth stanza, a pious hope for the future, should be sung more slowly than the other three and with even deeper feeling.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n – rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,
And this be our motto–“In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I hope you will look at the national anthem with new eyes. Listen to it, the next time you have a chance, with new ears.

And don’t let them ever take it away.

–Isaac Asimov, March 1991

Update:  Final word? Not on your life. (September 21, 2010)

Gordon van Gelder’s site hosts a good discussion on just what Asimov meant, and you should go read it there especially if you’re interested in historical accuracy. Others commented that Asimov did not mean this as a jingoistic, patriotic tribute to the fourth stanza, nor to the anthem, nor to the idea of American patriotism.  The version above is edited from Asimov’s original, some say fully Bowdlerized.

Update: Hear Isaac Asimov himself! (August 31, 2016)

Murky are the origins of the cassette tape upon which Asimov put this (before it was converted to YouTube), but it seems to be his voice.




11 Responses to Asimov’s tribute to the national anthem

  1. […] Isaac Asimov could sing all four stanzas of the “Star-spangled Banner;” at least one ver… […]


  2. […] Asimov’s (usually misquoted and misused) tribute to the American National Anthem […]


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Kleppinger and van Gelder make good points.

    However, I think we can gain some understanding of Asimov’s views, merely in the reading. Asimov treasured learning and history — his writing of this piece, in any presentation, is a dig at those who mindlessly celebrate the song as a patriotic tribute without understanding the song’s history, it’s entire poetic range as Key wrote it, or the genuine lack of ardor for the song or any song as national anthem through most of our nation’s history so far.


  4. Please note that the text you are citing is altered from Dr. Asimov’s original column. For more info, see:

    —Gordon Van Gelder


  5. John Carr says:

    I have an answer. Apparently it was run by Asimov himself in his “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”. The list of his essays and articles in that publication says:
    All Four Stanzas
    Subject: /story of the U. S. national anthem
    First Published In: Mar-91

    I found the above listing at the website:
    What led me to it was a blog post by Murdoc, so I’ll give him some credit by posting also his blog below.
    Hope this is helpful.
    John Carr
    Two Harbors, MN

    “Thanks! I read this when it was published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Before I read it, I thought “America the Beautiful” was a more proper anthem. After reading it I knew better.
    A few years later (1995 or 1996) I ran off copies and passed them around at work. It got a pretty good reaction.
    Good stuff.

    14 posted on Thursday, July 22, 2004 11:04:55 PM by murdocj (Murdoc Online – Everyone is entitled to my opinion (”


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Thank you, Mr. Kleppinger. That adds a lot to my appreciation of the story.


  7. Gene Kleppinger says:

    In the interest of “accuracy,” please note that this material from Asimov’s story “No Refuge Could Save” cannot be used to assert anything about Asimov’s own political views. In that narrative, the story about the anthem is being recited by a Nazi spy, whom Asimov’s heroic detective, Griswold, is able to unmask because the spy knows all four verses to the anthem. Asimov’s use of the story is highly ironic and should not be presented as “what Isaac Asimov said,” and it should NEVER be suggested that Asimov was the first-person character/singer in the fictional speech.


  8. Chris says:

    I am always amused when I listen to the radio and hear commentators condemn the general public for being ignorant of our great patriotic heritage, and then use the star spangled banner as proof. They ask the generic passerby on the street to sing the words to the national anthem, and then make fun of them when the miss something. Somehow I doubt that many, if any, of them know that there is more than one verse to the poem/song, and even fewer still know what the words to the otehr verses are. If only irony and ignorance were less powerful…


  9. Ed Darrell says:

    Why doesn’t Asimov criticize the “superstitious nonsense?” One possibility is that at the time he didn’t think it important — in 1991 we didn’t have near the number of religious crazies openly advocating the crazy ideas we hear today. But, what if he did? I ask for the original source for a purpose, to see whether it’s Asimov’s, and to see whether it’s accurate. I have found at least two other versions on the internet, with slight modifications, such as a note at the bottom that ‘it’s always sung in English,’ which I think is probably not something Asimov would have said.

    I don’t object to the mention of God, so long as it is clear that the mere mention in the song doesn’t carry any legal import, and especially, that it doesn’t repeal the First Amendment as some reason it should.

    As to the Spanish “version”: It seems to me that liberties have been taken with the second verse, and that the Spanish version as recorded and listed in the site you show is substantially different and new. We didn’t have any “official” version of the anthem until well into the 20th century; are the new lyrics something that should be adopted? Do they express the wishes of Key, or of Americans?

    Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address changed the way America views the Declaration of Independence, some have argued. Our debates about the national anthem have the same potential — the adoption of the anthem, especially the glorification of it during World War II, may have changed the way we view things much already.

    So, indeed, let’s discuss, and let’s try to get the facts right before we use them, or distort them to lesser ends.


  10. bernarda says:

    Here is the controversial Spanish version.

    [audio src="" /]

    And the Lyrics.


  11. bernarda says:

    It is surprizing that Asimov doesn’t criticize the 4th stanza which introduces superstitious nonsense. Before that the song is quite acceptable. Fortunately, the 4th is almost never noticed or sung.

    Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
    Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,
    Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n – rescued land
    Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation.

    Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,
    And this be our motto–“In God is our trust.”
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

    We could definitely do without that. Heaven didn’t rescue anyone.

    There is hardly any doubt that the tune is that of the English drinking song “To Anacreon In Heaven”.

    “The Tune

    There does not seem to be a single composer of this tune, rather it was a collective effort by the members of the Anacreontic Society. The new society song, “To Anacreon in Heaven” required a new tune and thus all got together and worked on this project. John Stafford Smith (1750-1836), a court musician and member of the society, was probably the guiding force behind this endeavor and most likely is the person responsible for the tune as we know it today. As early as 1798 the tune of The Anacreontic Song appeared in American papers with various lyrics, among these was Robert Treat Paine’s (1731-1814) popular “Adams and Liberty,” perhaps the most prominent American song prior to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

    Key and the Tune

    As early as 1806 Francis Scott Key adapted the tune to an earlier poem he wrote entitled “When the Warrior Returns” in honor of an American naval victory over the Barbary pirates. Hence, there is no doubt that Key was well acquainted with the tune, when in, September 1814, he saw the flag over Fort McHenry “by the dawn’s early light.” Soon after the battle, the poem and tune were published, a reminder of the American victory.”


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