Star Spangled Music Interview

Interview with Ruben Bolton—Singer & F.S. Key Reenactor


How did you become inter­est­ed in Fran­cis Scott Key as a songwriter?
My girls used to ask me to sing “O say can you see” as a bed­time song. I worked up the first verse in a minor key and liked how it sound­ed. The dark tone seemed to fit the two ques­tions of verse one as Key would have asked them that morn­ing, rather than the rhetor­i­cal way they are sung today with the flag in full view.  To test that idea, I started
research­ing the sto­ry of the writ­ing of “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner.” That’s when I found the col­lec­tion of Key’s poet­ry pub­lished in 1857—Poems of the Late Fran­cis Scott Key, esq. 

Describe your Fran­cis Scott Key Songs project…
In 2012 I start­ed appear­ing in cos­tume as Fran­cis Scott Key to recite his sto­ries and verse from “Poems.”  Key wrote poems to doc­u­ment events, cel­e­brate his faith, and make his friends laugh.  A few were writ­ten as song or hymn lyrics, and those I sang from the begin­ning, but I real­ly start­ed with a spo­ken word vision; with sto­ry­telling rather than music.


As I stud­ied the poems, one after anoth­er became a song.  Putting togeth­er a CD from Key’s poet­ry seemed a way to share his heart and life with peo­ple today who favor music over poet­ry.  I real­ly have no desire to be known from this or launch a record­ing career.  I just want peo­ple today to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to know Fran­cis Scott Key through his
poems.  Thanks to sev­er­al friends donat­ing their tal­ents that oppor­tu­ni­ty now exists in the form of Fran­cis Scott Key: Songs from the Author of the Star-Span­gled Ban­ner.  It is musi­cal­ly eclec­tic to the point of defy­ing genre clas­si­fi­ca­tion, but to para­phrase Key: “The
songs, I know, came from the heart, and if they make their way to the hearts of men and women devot­ed to their coun­try and to the great cause of free­dom, I could not pre­tend to be insen­si­ble to such a compliment.”

How do you go about your detec­tive work to locate Key’s songs?
They all start with a poem from the book.  When I like a poem and know or sus­pect it to have been a song at some point, I search for it in hymn data­bas­es and such.  Some­day I’d love to peruse the phys­i­cal archives in Mary­land, but for now the inter­net serves.  I pre­fer scans of old­er song­books and hym­nals and I’m grate­ful to have those resources online. There are poems that seem like­ly to have been writ­ten as song lyrics that I’ve yet to find paired with music, such as “Bear Song” and “Sun­day School Cel­e­bra­tion.”  Oth­ers have been pub­lished with one or more tunes that I don’t per­son­al­ly care for, and then there are the poems that have nev­er been songs before.  In these cas­es I have either paired the poem
with peri­od music or writ­ten my own tunes.


How do you cre­ate the music to accom­pa­ny these for­got­ten songs?
The music fol­lows the poem.  At first I thought any music I used need­ed to be from Key’s time, so that it at least could have been on his mind when he wrote the words.  “Bear Song” and “Effi­ca­cy of Prayer” are exam­ples.  That changed one morn­ing as I prac­ticed recit­ing “Peti­tion for a Habeas Cor­pus” and, with­out warn­ing, start­ed to rap it.  I’m not a big fan of hip hop music, but it just fit the poem.  I real­ized it might be a way to demon­strate that in the 1800′s Key’s poems were set to the pop­u­lar music of his time.  Since then I haven’t been as con­cerned with when the music orig­i­nat­ed as with how it suits Key’s poem.  I nev­er look for a F. S. Key poem that fits a style of music. I wait for a melody to come that fits the poem that’s on my mind.  And I’m real­ly grate­ful that, so far, only one of them is a rap song!


What do you think are Key’s strengths as a lyricist?
He’s vul­ner­a­ble.  He expos­es his heart “To Mary,” to his read­ers, and to God.  He’s whim­si­cal, often valu­ing a smile from his read­er over crit­ics’ acco­lades.  And some­how, though thou woulds’t toil to grasp the words thine eyes bring thee and heav’n knows what words coulds’t lose a syl­la­ble to an apos­tro­phe, Key is relat­able.  We’d like to meet Mrs. Potts and, even more than that to hear her gui­tar, we desire “her kind and gen­tle words to hear; The calm con­tent­ed face to see.”  We under­stand today what kind of trou­bles come at us “wave on wave,” even if we don’t know what the word “effi­ca­cy” means.  Key’s not so dif­fer­ent from you and I, and I think a good song is often a sort of mirror.

What do you think peo­ple need to know to bet­ter under­stand Fran­cis Scott
They need to know his poet­ry to under­stand him: his humor, faith, fears, and hope.  Know­ing the char­i­ties he cham­pi­oned is insight­ful as well: The Amer­i­can Bible Soci­ety, The Amer­i­can Sun­day School Union, two sem­i­nar­ies, free schools, the Col­o­niza­tion Soci­ety.  But I real­ize most peo­ple will only know him as the author of “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner.”  On that fate­ful Sep­tem­ber morn­ing, Key did some­thing nor­mal for him: he wrote a poem about his imme­di­ate cir­cum­stances.  The four vers­es tell a sto­ry cap­tur­ing his emo­tions: painful sus­pense, joy­ful tri­umph, anthems of joy.  Some sim­pli­fy Key as an unwa­ver­ing­ly pro-Amer­i­can patri­ot, but they ignore his moral protests of The War of 1812 and his near-ela­tion over U.S. defeats when we unsuc­cess­ful­ly invad­ed Cana­da.  So how could the pious Key expect a just God to inter­vene on behalf of Bal­ti­more, where the “abom­inable war” was not only cel­e­brat­ed, but fund­ed?  Fran­cis Scott Key did not see the city of Bal­ti­more receive the fair pun­ish­ment he believed it deserved.  Instead Key saw what he want­ed: Mer­cy.  A month lat­er Key wrote to a close friend “I hope I shall nev­er cease to feel the warmest grat­i­tude when I think of this most mer­ci­ful deliv­er­ance. It seems to have giv­en me a high­er idea of the ‘for­bear­ance, long suf­fer­ing and ten­der mer­cy’ of God, than I had ever before con­ceived.”  His rev­e­la­tion of a just but lov­ing God seems more impor­tant to Fran­cis Scott Key than his hav­ing writ­ten an already pop­u­lar song, which he doesn’t both­er to men­tion in that let­ter, and sel­dom spoke of pub­li­cal­ly for the rest of his life.  He gives the impres­sion of being embar­rassed by the fame “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner” brought him, but he nev­er shrank from using the atten­tion to point his admir­ers to the God who sur­prised him the morn­ing of Sep­tem­ber 14, 1814.

BoltonHeadShotOrig­i­nal­ly from Ohio, Ruben Bolton earned degrees from Bowl­ing Green State Uni­ver­si­ty in Music Edu­ca­tion and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri in Mechan­i­cal Engi­neer­ing.  He works in engi­neer­ing in Colum­bia Missouri.


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