When history professor Stephen Mucher attended a protest at Los Angeles International Airport in the wake of President Trump’s immigration ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries, he was pleasantly surprised when the crowd started singing the U.S. national anthem.

“We ended up breaking into song, and it suggests there’s some longing in us to claim this at a time where we feel our values are under attack,” says Mucher, who serves as the director of Bard College’s Master of Arts in Teaching program in Los Angeles.

Stephen Mucher poses at KQED. The historian and director of the Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching program in Los Angeles believes Americans should sing the fifth verse of the national anthem.
Stephen Mucher poses at KQED. The historian and director of the Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching program in Los Angeles believes Americans should sing the fifth verse of the national anthem. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

The experience in January inspired Mucher to reflect on the legacy of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its relevance today. But instead of focusing on the first verse, whose lyrics, Mucher believes, say a lot about the flag but not a lot about the Constitution, the professor turned his attention to the fifth:

“When our land is illum’d with Liberty’s smile,
If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,
Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
By the millions unchain’d who our birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.”

Bay Area-based kora player and Afro-folk vocalist Zena Carlota can be heard singing the fifth verse of the national anthem in KQED Arts’ video collage.
Bay Area-based kora player and Afro-folk vocalist Zena Carlota can be heard singing the fifth verse of the national anthem in KQED Arts’ video collage. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

A stanza for a country divided

Poet Oliver Wendell Holmes penned his fifth stanza in 1861 — 47 years after Francis Scott Key’s original verses — when the U.S. was in the grip of civil war. It circulated widely in the north during those years of conflict, but eventually retreated from public view. “He wrote that fifth verse, I believe, with real sorrow at what was happening to his country,” Mucher says. “The divisions we had in this country in 1861 are similar to what we have now.”

Portrait of poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. in 1853. Eight years later, when the U.S. was in the grip of civil war, he would pen a fifth verse for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ which laments his country’s divided state looks forward to the emancipation of enslaved people.
Portrait of poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. in 1853. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The country was of course actually at war back then. But Mucher believes this obscure stanza, written more than half a century after Francis Scott Key penned the other four, speaks more urgently than the first verse to the politically divisive times we live in today.

Relevance in 2017

Mucher says the fifth stanza feels hopeful because it looks forward to the emancipation of enslaved people — “the millions unchain’d.” “And in doing so, it speaks not just to the ultimate enfranchisement of African Americans, but also to the notion that the birthright of citizenship in this country at its best moments has been continually extended to greater numbers of people,” Mucher says.

Operatic tenor Jimmy Kansau. The Bay Area-based, Venezuelan singer can be heard singing the fifth verse of the national anthem in KQED Arts’ video collage.
Operatic tenor Jimmy Kansau. The Bay Area-based, Venezuelan singer can be heard singing the fifth verse of the national anthem in KQED Arts’ video collage. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

He also believes it’s timely because it suggests foreign invaders may not be the greatest threat to this country’s sovereignty. “The verse references ‘the traitor within,’” Mucher says. “It demonstrates a concern that our principles, our Constitution are most under threat, at times, from within our own borders.”

Malleable past, malleable future

“The Star-Spangled Banner” started out, melodically speaking, as a British drinking song in the 18th century. It didn’t become the official U.S. national anthem until President Herbert Hoover signed the song into law on Mar. 3, 1931, making it 86 years old this week.

Chloe, Rachel and Erika Tietjen of the T Sisters. The California-born, Oakland-based Americana trio can be heard singing the fifth verse of the national anthem in KQED Arts’ video collage.
Chloe, Rachel and Erika Tietjen of the T Sisters. The California-born, Oakland-based Americana trio can be heard singing the fifth verse of the national anthem in KQED Arts’ video collage. (Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Yet despite the song’s relatively short history as the national anthem, Mucher says it’s become so ubiquitous that he can’t imagine a world without “O Say Can You See.” He hopes the first and fifth verses might be sung at sports events and other occasions together, as a way for Americans to unite around the principles of the Constitution — and show both patriotism and resistance.

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Read Stephen Mucher’s article about the fifth verse of the national anthem here.

To find out more more about the artists featured in the video:
Lowell High School Concert Choir (dir. Jason Chan)
The T Sisters
Jimmy Kansau
Zena Carlota (watch KQED’s video about Carlota here.)

Why We Should Sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’s’ Obscure Fifth Verse 7 March,2017Chloe Veltman
  • Jonathan Levine

    Another patriotic song updated: a fifth verse to America the Beautiful —

    O beautiful for nation forged from peoples of the earth
    Whose kinship grows from more than blood and accident of birth
    America! America! Transcending faith and race,
    May each new dawn shine bright upon your ever-changing face!

    Performed here by the combined choirs of Temple Beth Emeth and St. Clare’s Episcopal Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan:
    tinyurl.com/nationforged

    • We really need to make America the Beautiful the official anthem some day. Perhaps, if we ever manage to put down Trumpism, we can celebrate by doing what should have been done long ago. My favorite is the 4th verse, btw. 🙂

Author

Chloe Veltman

Chloe Veltman is senior arts editor at KQED.

 

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