Today in History, March 3

“The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key and John Stafford Smith was formally adopted by the United States of America as its national anthem 85 years ago today. The song had been a part of American public life for almost a century at that point—the lyrics were written by Key in 1814 and the tune had been popular for even longer.

The tune, by John Stafford Smith, was associated with a men’s club in London that was well-known during the Revolutionary War era, “The Anacreontic” club. Members of that long-gone men’s club used to sing a mock-solemn song about the Anacreontic society, so it became a common practice to take this tune, which was neither solemn nor mock-solemn on its own merits but was almost catchy, almost hum-able, and attach it to any new popular poem whenever one fit it metrically. And Francis Scott Key’s poem about watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 fit it perfectly. By 1889, the U.S. Navy used it in ceremonies and it was known as the “unofficial U.S. national anthem” for decades after. A campaign to have the country make it the official national anthem followed and it gathered strength in the 1920s.

John Stafford Smith died in 1836 and thus did not live to see his tune, one of his minor creations in a long musical career, become one of the most recognized tunes on the planet.

* * * *
James Merrill, one of my favorite poets, was born 90 years ago today. The son of Charles Merrill, who was the “Merrill” of Merrill Lynch, James Merrill was born into privilege. He discovered early on that he was born to be a writer, and that his wealth gave him the lucky opportunity to pursue it.

[M]y father had taken a much earlier step to ensure his children’s independence, by creating an unbreakable trust in each of our names. Thus at five years old I was rich, and would hold my own pursestrings when I came of age, whether I liked it or not. I wasn’t sure I did like it. The best-intentioned people, knowing whose son I was and powerless against their own snobbery, could set me writhing under attentions I had done nothing to merit.—James Merrill, A Different Person

He and his siblings bought themselves out of their inheritances after Charles Merrill’s death, and the investor’s enormous estate went to charity; James Merrill himself set up a literary foundation that sponsored dozens of writers, artists, and performers in the last 40 years of his life and was dispensing up to $300,000 per year in the 1990s. The Ingram Merrill Foundation, the name of which brought his divorced parents together in name only, closed for business after he died in 1995. The Foundation never sought publicity; it existed only to help artists financially.

A Renewal
Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
Now I see no way but a clean break.
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.

 
You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.
We sit, watching. When I next speak
Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.
—James Merrill, Collected Poems, page 66

* * * *
“Minnie the Moocher” was recorded Cab Calloway & His Orchestra 85 years ago today. It was the first million-seller for a jazz recording. It became his signature song and he performed it, with audiences responding to and repeating his “Hi Dee Hi Dee Hi Dee Hi” call, until his death in 1994. The 1931 recording:

 
* * * *
Rodney King was beaten—tasered, struck with batons, kicked—by four Los Angeles Police Department officers ordered to deliver “power strokes” against him on this date 25 years ago.

* * * *
Lou Costello died on this date in 1959. William Frawley died 50 years ago today. Danny Kaye died on this date in 1987. Arthur Murray died 25 years ago today. Marguerite Duras died 20 years ago today. Meyer Schapiro died 20 years ago today.

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