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Do You Know How "The Star-Spangled Banner" Was Written?

Jun 25, 2008
On September 13, 1814, as British warships pounded away at Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor with their rockets and mortars, a prisoner on one of the ships changed America's history. He did it with a poem written on the back of a letter. When he was released from custody, Francis Scott Key set the words to a traditional melody and gave the fledgling United States its triumphant national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

Like many great moments in art that are revealed in the times of greatest struggle, The Star-Spangled Banner is a supreme example of art appearing from the darkest of times. The Americans at Fort McHenry were able to repel a vicious British Naval bombardment with few casualties because of their preparedness and swift actions. The sight of a specially-commissioned, oversized American flag rising from the smoke the morning after the attack was the inspiration Key needed as he watched from the ship where he was held prisoner. The poem was originally titled "Defence of Fort McHenry."

The words that Key wrote for The Star-Spangled Banner just happened to match the rhythm of a popular British song, "The Anacreontic Song." The title refers to the Greek court poet Anacreon whose erotic paeans to wine, women, and song are reflected in the lyrics of the original British tune. John Stafford Smith, a member of the Anacreontic Society, which was a group of amateur musicians, is commonly credited with writing the tune. Perhaps because it was commonly known as a raucous drinking song, though, the claim of composition in still up in the air.

Two newspapers printed The Star-Spangled Banner with its original title on September 20, containing a reference to the Anacreontic song as the tune. Other papers soon caught on, and before long a music store in Baltimore published the song with lyrics and music together, changing the name to The Star-Spangled Banner. Its first public performance was by an actor in a Baltimore tavern.

Though it was made the official song to be performed at the raising of the flag, it was a long time before The Star-Spangled Banner became the National Anthem. Many other songs competed for this honor, but in 1931 a Congressional resolution named it as the official theme song for the United States. Maybe this was a response to a Ripley's Believe It or Not cartoon that let people know that the United States had no National Anthem.

Since then The Star-Spangled-Banner has gone on to be performed at military, sporting, and musical events from coast to coast. Jimi Hendrix's groundbreaking performance at Woodstock, when his guitar seemed to ooze with bombs bursting in air, was a major step forward for the reinterpretation of the tune. It was a Puerto Rican singer named Jose Feliciano, however, whose bluesy version of the song shocked audiences, who paved the way for pop versions of the song.

So the next time you're at a big game, getting ready to watch your home team rise from the ashes in victory and The Star-Spangled Banner is sung, think of Francis Scott Key as he watched the symbol of the United States rise up from certain defeat on that distant day in September 1814.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of "Playing & Arranging American Patriotic Songs". His free newsletter on piano chords is available at "Piano Chords & Progressions Newsletter!"
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