Music professor explores history of national anthem


Normally, when Mark Clague writes an article, he’s happy to have a few hundred readers. On a recent Saturday, his words were heard by more than 100,000 people.

Clague, associate professor of musicology at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, wrote and narrated the “Proudly, We Hail!” halftime show for the football game against Miami University that celebrated the 200th anniversary of the national anthem.

The crowd heard classics, such as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and newer music, including a rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s famous electric guitar tribute to “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Clague founded the non-profit Star Spangled Music Foundation to educate people about the history of the song.

Clague, associate professor of musicology, wrote and narrated the “Proudly, We Hail!” halftime show for the recent football game against Miami University. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Clague says he was “into music as a kid,” and that his first instrument was the banjo. “It was destiny that I would study American music,” he jokes. He also plays the saxophone and bassoon.

But it was teaching, not performing, that piqued Clague’s interest in the history of our national anthem.

“I wanted to play for my students a recording of the original version of ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ but it turned out one didn’t exist,” says Clague. He gathered a group of students and recorded it, and the process inspired him to write a cultural biography of the song.

The project grew to include educational programs for K-12 schools, an exhibit in the Hatcher Graduate Library, a CD, several lectures and discussions, and of course, the halftime show.

“Basically, the story of the song is the story of America,” Clague says. “The project aimed to remind Americans of our shared heritage through the power of song.”

When he’s not narrating halftime shows, Clague juggles other projects. He is the editor-in-chief of a critical, scholarly last word on the music of George and Ira Gershwin as part of U-M’s Gershwin Initiative.

He is planning a two-week student trip along the Mississippi River’s Blues Highway that he and American Culture lecturer Bruce Conforth will lead for a Roots Music course next semester.

He is collaborating with colleagues in the departments of American Culture, Afroamerican and African Studies, Non-Profit Management and Entrepreneurship, where he has affiliate appointments. His desk, understandably, is cluttered.

“My interest in music is not that it transcends day-to-day life, but rather because it works on a practical level,” says Clague, who has studied how songs are used in political campaigns, the music of the civil rights movement, and the history of the Auditorium Theater in Chicago.

“It’s a blast to study all these different things: African-American music, jazz, classical, patriotic song — all of these arts, traditions and social rituals are mixing and colliding and fragmenting into new possibilities.”

Q & A

What moment in the classroom or lab stands out as the most memorable?

Once my class got into the topic of country music and a student who had never spoken before suddenly just lit up. There was so much that he had to contribute, and it seemed like he started to believe in himself in a new way.

What can’t you live without?

The delight of my family. I have three children, including two twin girls who are both freshman here at Michigan. They are music students — a French horn player and a singer.

What is your favorite spot on campus?

Hill Auditorium when animated by our student performers and the amazing artists brought to campus by the University Musical Society.

What inspires you?

Working with students to do things they didn’t know they could do.

What are you currently reading?

Ryan Banagale’s new book “Arranging Gershwin,” on the many uses of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My undergraduate music professor, Hugh Cooper. He really saw music as connecting with science, literature, and research. 


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