Monthly Archives: October 2013

They’re Playing Our Song

The Star-Spangled Banner that Key saw had 15 stars and 15 stripes.  (Smithsonian)

The Star-Spangled Banner that Key saw had 15 stars and 15 stripes. (Smithsonian)

This is the time of year when millions of Americans turn their attention to baseball’s World Series.  Experts differ about who will win, but I feel confident in making this prediction:  Sometime during the Series, some entertainer will humiliate himself (or herself) while attempting to sing the U.S. national anthem.  It happens a lot.

In fairness, it is a difficult tune to sing, with its unusual octave-and-a-half range.  Somewhere around “And the rockets’ red glare,” the anthem singer often appears to be straining to pass a kidney stone.  The panicked look on the singer’s face tells you he’s also struggling to remember the words.

Those words were written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, a lawyer who had been sent to negotiate the release of a prisoner during the War of 1812.  Because Key had gotten a good look at the deployment of British forces in the area around Baltimore, he was detained so that he couldn’t report back to American military commanders.

During the night of September 13-14, Key was aboard a British ship in Chesapeake Bay, from which he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry.  In the morning, he saw the American flag still flying above the fort, and knew that meant McHenry and other forts had successfully defended Baltimore.

That’s when he wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the back of a letter he found in his pocket.  After his release from British custody that day, he made some revisions to the text while in a Baltimore hotel.

He seems to have adjusted the lyrics to fit a popular tune that he had in mind.  You know how you get a song stuck in your brain and you can’t make it go away?  Maybe that’s what happened to Francis Scott Key.  The tune was a drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven”, which had been composed by John Stafford Smith for a London gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians.

The original lyrics, as sung by members of the Anacreontic Society, were sort of bawdy — in general, they were about the pleasures of wine, women and song.  You can imagine a bunch of drunk guys bellowing those high notes which cause professionals so much grief.

Within a decade or so after the song was first published in 1779, the tune had been appropriated for other songs, most of which were patriotic.  In fact, Francis Scott Key had used that same tune himself for an 1805 composition he called “When the Warrior Returns”.

On September 20, 1814, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was printed in the Baltimore Patriot and soon became popular as other newspapers around the country also printed it.

Francis Scott Key continued his legal career, arguing many cases before the Supreme Court.  It is also worth noting that Key was the namesake of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.  Both men seem to have been familiar with drinking songs.

In spite of its popularity, “The Star-Spangled Banner” didn’t officially become the national anthem of the United States until 1931.  That may have been around the time when the anthem’s final words — “Play ball!” — were added.

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The Best Medicine

All she said was, "Nice to meet you."

All she said was, “Nice to meet you.”

According to the old proverb, laughter is the best medicine.  The pharmaceutical industry would dutifully add that side effects of laughter may include dizziness, shortness of breath, increase in blood pressure, and flatulence; if a laugh lasts longer than four hours consult your physician immediately.

OK, they haven’t gone quite that far yet, but scientists actually are studying the effects of laughter.  The objective is to identify the chemical reactions that laughter causes in the brain, so that drugs can be developed that would simulate its effects, thereby combating depression and anxiety.

In their quest to someday produce a laughter pill, scientists have done all sorts of studies; one of the more intriguing ones, headed by Dr. Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University, reveals that rats laugh when they are tickled.  But you already knew that, right?  It occurs to me that a lab rat would probably prefer to be in a tickling experiment than a study determining the effects of inhaling toxic waste.

Anyway, the Mayo Clinic website says that “laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air… and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.”  (Endorphins, of course, are the feel-good neurotransmitters.)  The Mayo Clinic article goes on to say that “laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.”

Having devoted my career to trying to provoke laughter in my fellow human beings, I was feeling sort of… I don’t know, philanthropic.  But then I read a summary of some research done by Dr. Robert R. Provine, a neuroscientist who wrote a book called Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.

Provine told WebMD that “Most laughter is not in response to jokes or humor.”  One of his studies involved eavesdropping on conversations in public places; he and his associates determined that only a small fraction of laughs were the result of jokes or clever remarks.  Over 80% of the lines that got laughs were banalities like “I’ll see you guys later.”

This comes as devastating news to comedy writers, who stay up late pitching jokes and earnestly debating whether the punch line is funnier with the word “heifer” or “wildebeest”.  (Ultimately, that joke was rejected altogether.)   If Provine is correct, our life’s work has been for naught.

“Laughter is above all else a social thing,” he says.  “The requirement for laughter is another person.”  In other words, you’re more inclined to laugh when someone else around you is laughing, and before you know it, the whole darn cell block is giggling without really knowing why.

It seems we comedy writers wasted a lot of time coming up with funny lines for the actors to say when we could have just sent them up into the theater seats to literally tickle the audience members.

Even without scientific evidence, though, I’m convinced that laughter does indeed have beneficial effects, and that when someone else is laughing, we are inclined to join them.  So now maybe the scientists need to turn their attention to this vexing question:  How can laughter be medicine if it’s contagious?