A History of the “Star-Spangled Banner”

Everyone knows that Francis Scott key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was on September 14, 1814, to be exact, during the War of 1812 while awaiting the results of the Battle of Baltimore, in which British ships bombarded Fort McHenry. When Key saw the American flag still waving in the morning, he was inspired to write his poem.

But he didn’t call it “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Instead, he titled it “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.”

The tune was lifted from what people refer to as an old British drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” There’s no doubt about the origin of the tune, but whether it was a drinking song, well, judge for yourselves. The melody was written by John Stafford Smith and the lyrics by Ralph Tomlinson for an 18th-century London social club called the Anacreontic Society. The Anacreontic Society was a group of amateur musicians, all men, who got together and did what groups of men frequently do. “To Anacreon in Heaven” was the club’s official song. Here are its lyrics. Well, there is a lot of talk about drinking in it, and Bacchus, of course, was the Roman god of wine and intoxication…. I left the spelling and punctuation as it was originally.


O Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full Glee,

A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,

That he their Inspirer and Patron would be;

When this answer arriv’d from the Jolly Old Grecian

“Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,

“no longer be mute,

“I’ll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,

“And, besides I’ll instruct you, like me, to intwine

“The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”


The news through Olympus immediately flew;

When Old Thunder pretended to give himself Airs.

“If these Mortals are suffer’d their Scheme to persue,

“The Devil a Goddess will stay above Stairs.

“Hark! already they cry,

“In transports of Joy,

“Away to the Sons of Anacreon we’ll fly,

“And there, with good Fellows, we’ll learn to intwine

“The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.


“The Yellow-haired God and his nine fusty Maids

“From Helicon’s banks will incontinent flee,]

“Idalia will boast but of tenantless Shades,

“And the bi-forked a mere Desart will be

“My Thunder no fear on’t,

“Shall soon do it’s Errand,

“And dam’me! I’ll swinge the Ringleaders, I warrant.

“I’ll trim the young Dogs, for thus daring to twine

“The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”


Apollo rose up, and said, “Pry’thee ne’er quarrel,

“Good King of the Gods, with my Vot’ries below:

“Your Thunder is useless”—then shewing his Laurel,

Cry’d “Sic evitabile fulmen you know!

“Then over each head

“My Laurels I’ll spread;

“So my Sons from your Crackers no Mischief shall dread,

“Whilst snug in their Club-Room, they jovially twine

“The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”


Next Momus got up with his risible Phiz,

And swore with Apollo he’d chearfully join—

“The full Tide of Harmony still shall be his,

“But the Song, and the Catch, and the Laugh shall be mine.

“Then, Jove,be not jealous

“Of these honest fellows.”

Cry’d Jove, “We relent, since the Truth you now tell us;

“And swear by Old Styx, that they long shall intwine

“The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”


Ye Sons of Anacreon, then join Hand in Hand;

Preserve Unanimity, Friendship, and Love!

‘Tis your’s to support what’s so happily plann’d;

You’ve the sanction of Gods, and the Fiat of Jove.

While thus we agree,

Our Toast let it be.

May our Club flourish happy, united, and free!

And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine

The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.

I’ve seen the original music to “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and it is strikingly similar to the tune we now know as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Oddly enough, Francis Scott Key seemed to like that melody a lot, because “The Defence of Fort M’Henry” wasn’t even the first poem he used it with. An earlier poem of his, “When the Warrior Returns,” was also set to that music.

Within a couple of months of its composition, “The Defence of Fort M’Henry” was renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and printed as sheet music, often with the note “Sung to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven.”

Although only the first verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the only one ever sung now, or ever, really, the poem originally had four verses. Here they are:


O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Of course, it was the third verse that did, and still does, cause controversy. Some argue the reference to slavery implied support for that “peculiar institution.” Others say it was a reference to the American slaves who were promised their freedom by the Brits if they’d fight for the old Union Jack (the British flag) against the United States. The debate continues.

Although “The Star-Spangled Banner” was popular almost from the time Key first wrote his poem, it wasn’t until 1918 that a bill was introduced in Congress to make it America’s national anthem. That bill failed, as did six subsequent attempts. It took over five million signatures on a petition to finally get the bill through in 1931, and it’s been our national anthem ever since. Before that, such songs as “Hail, Columbia,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and “America the Beautiful” served as de facto anthems.

All of the above information is true (but don’t take my word for it–look it up!). The only opinion I’ll express is this: I don’t much care for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Musically, the octave and a fifth range is hard for most people to sing, and lyrically it’s just a bit too, um, bombastic for my tastes. I’m not a religious guy, but I’d still have preferred “America the Beautiful.” I find its melody much more pleasant, and hey, I’d rather sing about beauty than about blowing stuff up.

But to each his or her respective own.

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