John Stafford Smith, to whom the tune was attributed, was an important English music historian, as well as a singer, organist and composer of glees. Smith's melody originated as To Anacreon in Heav'n, sung at each fortnightly meeting of London's Anacreontic Society, a club of wealthy amateur musicians founded in 1766. Anacreon (c. 563-478 B.C.) had been a classical Greek poet who wrote of love and wine: Ralph Tomlinson's six verses to Smith's ode each end with
"...[en-] twine /
the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine."
Smith's tune was popular in the American colonies: Robert Treat Paine wrote Revolutionary words to it, Adams and Liberty. Franz Joseph Haydn visited the Anacreontic Society in 1791. The club disbanded in 1794 when members resigned in protest after their president forbade the performance of certain comic songs that might offend the visiting Duchess of Devonshire.
Francis Scott Key's words commemorate precise details of a specific event during the War of 1812. The actual star-spangled banner was 30' by 42'--the largest battle flag ever flown. It had been commissioned by Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry at the entrance to Baltimore Harbor, who wanted a flag large enough to be seen by the British at a distance. Flag-maker Mary Young Pickersgill, assisted by her 13-year-old daughter Caroline, assembled the flag with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, laying out yards of woolen bunting at night by candlelight on the spacious floor of a brewery.
British forces had burned Washington in August of 1814, and captured a beloved elderly physician named William Beanes. Francis Scott Key, a successful Washington lawyer, had permission from President James Madison to try to negotiate Beanes' release. Negotiations took place over dinner—while the British officers also planned their attack on Baltimore. Beanes was freed, but he and Key were not permitted to return to Baltimore until after the battle whose plans they had overheard. They spent the night on their own sloop under a flag of truce, listening and watching for signs of the battle's outcome.
The British fired 1500 bombshells at Fort McHenry, including specialized Congreve rockets that left red tails of flame ("the rockets' red glare") and bombs with burning fuses that were supposed to explode when they reached their target but often blew up in midair instead ("the bombs bursting in air").
Watching from eight miles downstream, Key was able to see the huge battle flag hoisted at dawn to replace the storm flag that had flown through the rainy night. An amateur poet and hymn-writer (his hymns include Before the Lord We Bow and Lord With Glowing Heart I'd Praise Thee), he began a commemorative poem, which he called The Defence of Fort M'Henry, on the back of an old letter.
Finishing the four stanzas of the poem in a Baltimore hotel, he gave it to his brother-in-law to take to a printer who produced handbills of it. Two Baltimore newspapers, the Patriot and the American, published The Defence of Fort M'Henry anonymously on September 20, noting that the words fit the tune To Anacreon in Heaven. Soon it appeared in other newspapers around the country, with its new title, The Star-Spangled Banner . Ferdinand Durang, a Baltimore actor, sang the song publicly at Captain McCauley's tavern that October. Carr's Music Store of Baltimore was able to offer The Star-Spangled Banner in their 1814 catalog.
Through the 19th century The Star-Spangled Banner remained one of several popular patriotic songs. In 1916, by executive order, President Woodrow Wilson ordered it played at military events. Its baseball debut was in 1918: league officials had considered cancelling the World Series due to the War, until they learned that American soldiers in France were looking forward to knowing the results of the Series. At the seventh-inning stretch of the first game, the band suddenly started playing The Star-Spangled Banner as a patriotic gesture. Players and spectators stood, took off their hats, and sang. The song was repeated at subsequent games.
While The Star-Spangled Banner had been acknowledged as America's unofficial national anthem since at least 1914, it was not until 1931 that an Act of Congress, signed by President Herbert Hoover, made it official. The law does not include the words of the anthem--and several different versions date back to Key himself--so there is no definitive set of words. During World War II, the tradition of singing or playing the anthem spread to other sports events.
Nina Gilbert's arrangements of The Star-Spangled Banner for four-part unaccompanied women’s or treble voices (SSAA), for unaccompanied mixed voices (SATB) and for four-part men’s voices are available from Santa Barbara Music Publishing.
E-mail me with any questions about the above information.
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Some sources for the content of this page include:
Allen D. Spiegel, "The role of a physician in the composition of 'The Star Spangled Banner.'" Journal of Community Health v20, n4 (August 1995): 367 (12 pages)
and New York Times microfilms.
This page has been used by students of all ages researching The Star-Spangled Banner , including the Great Salt Lake Cub Scout Council, and it was consulted by ESPN Magazine's Answer Guy for the August 9, 1999 issue. For July 4, 2006, it was featured on WHYY’s Radio Times With Marty Moss-Coane and Radio America’s G. Gordon Liddy Show.