I was getting ready to watch the World Series and I was enduring the atrocious warbling of an off-key canary when I thought back to some yellowed papers I'd purchased at a garage sale. It was the diary of a man named George Wemby, who was a childhood friend of Francis Scott Key. That diary contains the true meaning of the lyrics Key wrote. (This has been confirmed by researchers from Harvard, whom I allowed access to the notes.) I know what you're thinking, "How come we're just now hearing about this?"
The answer is simple: I am about to post these 200-year-old notes on ebay.
But first, a little background. Key was born in Carroll County, Maryland, to parents who were of English descent and who spoke with a steep Cockney accent. According to George's notes, Francis preferred being called by his nickname "Effsie" because "Francis [is] a girl's name."
George and Effsie had a typical childhood. As kids they would run through the fields with the other boys and pretend they were soldiers. Later, Francis decided to "join the war effort" of 1812. According to Wembey's writings, that was a huge mistake, because Effsie came from a long line of pacifists. Foolishly, he believed he could go to war as an observer.
The legend states that Francis was aboard a ship when he penned the song. The truth, according to Wemby, is that Key was among the ground troops, and as their numbers reduced, Effsie was forced into battle at gunpoint. Gunpoint was a small town two miles away from Fort McHenry. The Commanding Officer of the Americans, Benedict "Foots" Walker, actually used a sword to persuade Francis to join the fray. The closer Francis had ever come to "war" was when his dad would get inebriated and they would engage in fierce sports arguments. Strange as it sounds, back in those days, the only sports discussed were horseshoes, darts, archery and horse racing.
Anyhoo, war was a frightening prospect and Francis, and quite frankly, was a coward. Hell, who takes a timeout in the midst of a battle to sit down and write a song? The piece he wrote became the American national anthem. Wembley stated in his diary that historians ("butchers" as he called them) took some liberties with the lyrics. Yes, the piece is Francis' observation of his war experience, but he was not inspired by bombs and rockets, but frightened by them.
So at risk of sounding "un-American", I am here today to disclose what that song is really about by breaking down the real and assumed lyrics for you. I am reconstructing the short version, as sung by Americans at ball games, civic meetings and cock fights. Before reading any further, all of you patriots and traditionalists out there better pop your nitro tablets…
Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
Totally wrong. This line is actually, "Ozé cannuzi by the donzerly light."
"Ozé cannuzi" in Cockney slang means, "What the hell is all that noise?" Some say the phrase came from the name of London poet/musician Oze Cannuzi, whose work was called "noise" because every piece he wrote was filled with vile and violent imagery. In fact, he is considered history's first rapper. As for the word "donzerly," it is a Cockney expression relating to the first light that comes through a part in a curtain or blind and rouses one awake.
Effsie had been roused first thing in the morning by the cacophony. Again, you're probably wondering how a fella could take a nap during a war, but that was "Effsie being Effsie." He was what folks today might call a "fraidy cat." In short, he'd been startled by the loud noises ("the bombs bursting in air") and became upset by it.
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
The way this is sung makes no sense. That's because what Effsie actually wrote was "Why, so proudly I bailed at the twilight's first gleaming!" Imagine a man boasting that he is a coward. Wembey wrote, "Effsie's game hadth no shame, for he was a pacifist true to his beliefs, and he'd told me that as soon as he got the chance, he ran from the scene of the battle." This came at dusk, which according to George's diary, "…was when the moon was nigh and the light gleamed upon the waters."
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight / O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
This sounds like a classic case of forced rhyming, until you examine what Effsie actually wrote:
"Who…? The broad Stripes, and bright stars, through the perilous fight / 'ore, the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming."
One of the realities about wars of yore were that "'ores" ("whores" as pronounced in a cockney accent) were always around the fringes of battlegrounds. In this case, three "'ores" were in the vicinity. One of them was a slave who'd run away from her cruel master. Because of the scarring on her back, she went by the name "Stripes."
Under the starlight Effsie had seen her fleeing the scene. She was dodging bullets, rocks, cannon fire and whatnot ("the perilous fight") and by "ramparts" what he actually meant was "ram parts," as the battle took place near a farm and sadly, many of the farm animals, in particular, the rams-were collateral damage. The innards of those poor creatures were being blown ("streaming") all over the place.
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
The first line speaks for itself; the second line is a contrast: The flag was still there, waving high and proud; but Effsie was no longer there. He was abandoning his post.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
This was meant as sarcasm. He was saying, "Look at that flag waving during all this tumult, while I'm waving bye-bye to all this madness!"
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave…
Now we get to the other "'ores": D'landala Free and Dahomola Bray. Yep, ol' Effsie left his post with three hookers and found a quiet place where he and the three 'ores, using the slang of the day, "pitched their tent."
In short, the original version of this song was about a man frightened by war, who went AWOL, ran across three hookers, and the four of them later went and made merry. This is where the expression "Make love, not war" came from.