By James H. Johnson

There is a song set to an old British tune. It is notoriously hard to sing and has tripped up more than one vocalist through the years. However, that’s about the only trouble it has caused until recently.

It’s called “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Its words, as every schoolchild knows, were written by Francis Scott Key as he stood on board a British ship during the Battle of Baltimore in 1812. Key actually wrote a poem, not a song. The words were inspired by the emotions he felt as he glimpsed a huge American flag waving through the smoke of battle.

The poem was set to music using a British tune entitled “To Anacreon in Heaven.” That melody already had some lyrics, but Key’s poem seemed to fit better and the song caught on quickly in the United States.

The “Star-Spangled Banner” did not immediately become the official national anthem. That took another hundred years. However, with its pomp and lofty lyrics, it became a popular choice for patriotic occasions.

World War I saw a wave of patriotic spirit across the nation. After the fighting was over, soldiers rallied for a national song, and the choice of most “doughboys” was “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was in 1931, 155 years after the nation’s founding, that President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional resolution naming the banner as the official national anthem.

There is no law stipulating when the anthem should be played. It is up to the public. Just about the only time we hear it these days is at sporting events. That tradition evidently goes back to 1918, when it was played during the seventh-inning stretch of the world series game between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs.

Since it was the seventh-inning stretch, those baseball fans in 1918 were already on their feet. The flag was flying overhead, and many veterans saluted the flag as the notes of the anthem wafted over the crowd. Soon, standing and saluting were woven into the music.

In recent times, there has been public pushback against this tradition. Those who wish to make political or social statements have chosen to kneel or sit during the anthem. Are they breaking a law by not standing?

According to Title 36 of the United States Code, during a rendition of the national anthem, when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Those in uniform should render the military salute.

So, there you have the official government “stand” about standing.

Notice that there is no enforcement implied in the code. Legal experts point out that the code says “should” and not “shall.”

Whenever symbols are involved in a discussion, there is also a lot of emotion. Yes, the national anthem and flag are symbols. Symbols stand for what we want them to stand for. For many, the flag and anthem stand for patriotism, love of country, devotion to the purest desires of our founding fathers, and appreciation for those who have fought and died in defense of our nation.

To others, the anthem and flag stand for our country’s shortcomings.

So, how about you? What do the anthem and flag mean to you? Should you stand or not? Our country is great because you have the right to decide.

James H. Johnson is a retired teacher who lives in Greenwood. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.