Living Anthems: The Predictably Unpredictable Life of Patriotic Song
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” as Francis Scott Key’s poem is now known, was written in mid-September 1814 to celebrate the defeat of the British navy at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. The event was a critical American victory as Britain had only days before marched through the young nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., burning the city to the ground. A lawyer as well as amateur poet, Francis Scott Key had been aboard a British ship to negotiate a successful prisoner release. As the enemy’s plans for attacking Baltimore had been discussed within earshot, Key was detained for the duration of the battle and wrote his now famous lyric in ecstatic response to America’s unanticipated victory.
Key’s poem was published almost immediately as a broadside ballad in newspapers along the Atlantic coast, with the lyric accompanied by some variation of the note “Tune: Anacreon,” indicating a well-known melody to which the words could be sung. This title referred to the club song of London’s Anacreontic Society, an amateur musicians and singing association.
The tune is indeed a strange choice for a national anthem. Its melodic compass from lowest note to highest is an octave plus a fifth (known to musicians as a twelfth) making the melody awkward at best for group singing. Its British origins dilute nationalist pride. Its continuing reputation as a drinking song sullies any potential idealism, but results from both a misunderstanding of the Anacreontic Society, really a rather elite professional association. Yet we can’t really blame Key for these problems. Key, of course, was not writing a national anthem. He was writing a lyric to celebrate “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” as the poem was first known, and toasting the young nation’s heroic victory at the pub might well have been part of the intent.
While Key’s authorship was never in question, knowledge of who composed the music was uncertain as late as 1977 when William Lichtenwanger of the Library of Congress published “The Music of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’: From Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill.” (fn1) Lichtenwanger built upon research by earlier music specialists, but with the added good fortune to run across an obscure diary entry that finally and unambiguously connected authorship of the tune with John Stafford Smith, an English composer and keyboardist employed by The Anacreontic Society for its instrumental dinner prelude concerts.
It wasn’t until 1931 that Key’s song became the official anthem of the United States of America by act of Congress. Prohibitionists, nationalists, pacifists, and even music teachers opposed the choice, suggesting alternatives including “Hail Columbia” and “America, the Beautiful.” While these objectors each had good reasons to forward an alternative to Key’s Banner, the choice had long been made. President Herbert Hoover’s signature on Statute 1508 was less legislative creativity than simple recognition of the ever developing role “The Star-Spangled Banner” already had in U.S. life. Advanced by its association with the flag, especially in military ceremony during the Civil War, Spanish American War, and World War I, the Banner had long replaced “Hail Columbia” and “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” as the de facto anthem of the nation. Thus the real decision was made not by Congress but by living cultural practice. (fn2)
The tale of “The Star-Spangled Banner” thus celebrates the myriad ways in which Americans, from kindergartners to military veterans and baseball fans to newly naturalized immigrants, have used the song to give voice to citizenship. That we as Americans lose track of who wrote the song, when, and why is less a criticism of our historical memory, than a signal of the song’s continued relevance as living ritual.
(fn1) Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 34:3 (July 1977), pp. 136–170.
(fn2) Had “God Bless America” been well known at the time, it might have proved a significant challenger. But Irving Berlin’s song was invisible until 1938, when it was performed as a prayer for continued peace in the face of Nazi aggression by singer Kate Smith for an Armistice Day radio broadcast remembering the end of World War I.
© Mark Clague