Spangled Mythconception #4: Key's Banner is Based on a Bawdy Old English Drinking Song

MythConceptionsLogoMYTH #4: Key’s Banner is based on the melody of a bawdy old English drinking song

CORRECTION: “The Anacreontic Song” was the constitutional anthem of an elite, London-based, amateur music society… but it gets complicated.

Francis Scott Key would have most likely encountered the melody of “The Anacreontic Song” initially through its most popular American parody—a song written in support of the United States’ second President John Adams and known as “Adams and Liberty.” So for Key, the song might well have been singularly American. It’s also likely that he knew the original English musicians’ club tune as his family was of British descent.
This original song was the constitutional anthem of The Anacreontic Society, an all-male music club based in London and founded about 1766. Undoubtedly club members drank alcohol at meetings (water wasn’t safe after all) and indeed this lyric toasts the club’s future, but the song’s purpose is distinctly different as it conveys the club’s value of sociality through music. The song indeed sounds like a drinking song. It uses the choral refrain, fast tempo, jaunty affect, and melodic leaps common to the drinking song genre but here for advertising purposes. It conveys the fun-loving camaraderie of club membership and celebrates the joys of making music. (There’s nothing bawdy about the original text and, in fact, women were not even present when the song was sung and couldn’t be members.) It is also too musically sophisticated for a typical pub ditty. Accompanied by harpsichord and with a chorus sung in four-part harmony, it required substantial vocal skill to perform. It is also rather long. These characteristics are not part of the drinking song genre.

“The Anacreontic Song” performed by Jacob Wright and other students from the University of Michigan as part of the Poets & Patriots recording project.
(click here for our Star Spangled Music Edition of the sheet music)

The song was written to be performed in a ballroom rather than a pub. Anacreontic Society meetings were elite affairs beginning with a two-hour symphony concert held in an elegant meeting room followed by dinner. The club’s anthem was sung after dinner (and was usually preceded by a prayer) to introduce a set of popular part songs. Professional singers, who also performed in London’s theaters, sang along with select, trained amateurs while general members joined to echo as a chorus. As a challenging song written to showcase the artistic aspirations of the club, “The Anacreontic Song” would typically have been sung by a featured professional. Its rather athletic melody was thus never intended for mass singing. So that’s why it’s so hard to sing! It’s written to allow a skilled soloist to show off.
One wonders what Key would think of 100,000 fans at a college football game singing his Anthem. In his day, the Banner was only sung as a solo, with the final two lines (“O say does that… wave?) repeated by a chorus (i.e, the community) and affirmed.

Justin Berkowitz sings the original 1814 version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”
pretty much as it would have been sung in Francis Scott Key’s day

My extended discussion of the drinking song controversy can be found on the blog Musicology Now — “To Be or Not: Is ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ Really Based on an Old English Drinking Song?” And please tell your friends —  it’s a club song, not a pub song.
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