Sep. 13, 2013
What courage we had,
our infantry stretched across the yard,
no shields, no swords,
no cavalry assembled behind us
calming their nervous mounts.
We had the strength of our arms,
the speed of our legs.
We had our friends and our convictions.
Opposite us, the undulating line
of children drew suddenly straight.
It was early on a summer day
but the larks fell silent.
A high voice
invoked the name Red Rover;
we could not say who said it first.
But righteousness passed through us
like current through a wire.
Or like an inaugural sip of wine
burning in our chests,
something father gave us
over our mother's earnest
It was on this day in 1814 that Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner," by witnessing the British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. It had been a dark summer for the young United States. Just three weeks previous, on August 24, British troops had set fire to much of Washington, D.C., including the Capitol, the Treasury, and the president's house. President James Madison had been forced to flee for his safety. Americans were terrified that the British might choose to invade New York or Philadelphia or Boston and destroy those cities as well.
The British had recently begun using rockets, a new military weapon adapted from Chinese technology. Francis Scott Key was horrified as he watched these rockets raining down on Fort McHenry, at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor. He watched the bombardment all night, and he had little hope that the American fort would withstand the attack. But just after sunrise on September 14th, he saw the American flag still flying over the fort. In fact, Francis Scott Key might never have even seen the flag if the fort commander, Major Armistead, hadn't insisted on flying one of the largest flags then in existence. The flag flying that day was 42 feet long and 30 feet high.
Francis Scott Key began writing a poem about the experience that very morning. It turned out that the battle at Baltimore was the turning point of the war. Before the war, the American flag had little sentimental significance for most Americans. It was used mainly as a way to designate military garrisons or forts. But after the publication of "The Star-Spangled Banner," even non-military people began to treat the flag as a sacred object.
It's the birthday of the "Father of Bluegrass," Bill Monroe, born in Rosine, Kentucky (1911), a brilliant mandolinist and a hard-driving tenor singer. His mother was an excellent fiddler, but his main inspiration was his Uncle Pen Vandiver, whom Monroe later honored with the song "Uncle Pen." In 1938, Bill formed the Blue Grass Boys, a group that would include future stars of country music such as Don Reno, Jimmy Martin, Carter Stanley, Vassar Clements, Chubby Wise, and Byron Berline — and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
Monroe's song "Sittin' Alone in the Moonlight":
Sittin' alone in the moonlight,
Thinkin' of the days gone by,
Wonderin' about my darlin'.
I can still hear her sayin' good-bye.
Oh, the moon glows pale as I sit here.
Each little star seems to whisper and say,
"Your sweetheart has found another,
And now she is far, far away.
It's the birthday of the pianist and composer Clara Schumann, born Clara Wieck in Leipzig, Germany, in 1819. Both of her parents were musicians, and after her parents divorced when she was four, Clara was raised by her father, who taught her to play the piano. When she was eight years old, she performed at the home of some family friends, and 17-year-old Robert Schumann was so impressed by her playing that he dropped out of law school to study piano with Clara's father.
Clara made her formal debut at age 11, and she was considered a great pianist for the rest of her life. Her concerts sold out, she won all sorts of awards, and the critics loved her, comparing her to Beethoven. By the time she was a teenager, she was a much better piano player than Schumann, but he fell in love with Clara and proposed to her, and her father did everything he could to stop the marriage. Clara and Robert finally had to take him to court, and they were married on the eve of Clara's 21st birthday.
Clara raised seven children and continued to tour, compose, and perform, and it was largely because of her popularity and because people respected her so much that they gave Robert Schumann's work a chance, although many people still didn't like it. When her husband died in 1856, Clara continued touring, and played her last concert in 1891, 61 years after her performance career had begun. She died five years later, at the age of 77.
She said, "My imagination can picture no fairer happiness than to continue living for art."
It's the birthday of British novelist, playwright, and essayist John Boynton — J.B. — Priestley (1894) (books by this author), born in Bradford, Yorkshire. He served in the infantry during World War I, and most of his friends were killed in combat. He didn't write about the war, and remained nostalgic for the pre-war years, saying, "I belong at heart to the pre-1914 North Country." After studying English literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, he became a journalist, and then a novelist, and then a dramatist. He was also a popular and talented radio speaker, and produced a series of patriotic broadcasts during World War II. He wrote more than 120 books, most notably the novels The Good Companions (1929), Bright Day (1946), and Lost Empires (1965).
In a 1978 interview with the International Herald Tribune, he said, "Most writers enjoy two periods of happiness — when a glorious idea comes to mind and, secondly, when a last page has been written and you haven't had time to know how much better it ought to be." And, "Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries."
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