When was the anthem written?

Francis Scott Key wrote the lyric “The Defence of Fort McHenry” inspired by the dawning of the American victory at the Battle of Baltimore on September 14, 1814. He was on his own ship anchored on a tributary and no longer a prisoner at this time, but his ship could not head for Baltimore until the British fleet departed. Thus he did not return to land and finish the lyric until September 16. The original published title of Key’s poem is spelled with a “c” in Defence; the tune quickly became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” because this phrase is repeated in the final line of each verse. This is the title given to the first sheet music of the song, published in October or early November.

Who wrote the music? Is the “Banner” a poem or a song?

The tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is borrowed from “The Anacreontic Song,” which is an amateur musicians club anthem from London, England. The music was written by an English church and award-winning popular song composer named John Stafford Smith. This attribution was not proven beyond doubt until 1976 in an article by William Lichtenwanger. The tune is not a folk song. It is also certain that Francis Scott Key knew the tune well and that he created the words to fit the tune. Thus Key’s words are most appropriately called a lyric, rather than a poem because they were intended from the start to be sung. We know Key knew the tune prior to writing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” because he had written a previous song to the same melody in 1805. This earlier song is titled “When the Warrior Returns” and was Key’s first patriotic song. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the second patriotic song Key wrote and he only wrote two. Also, the poetic form of Anacreontic broadsides is unique. It has eight lines and nine rhymes (there’s a triple rhyme in lines 5 & 6), so it’s not feasible that Key would have written a lyric that fit this unusual form by accident. (In the anthem, the triple rhyme is made by the words “Air,” “Glare,” and “There.”)

How do I write out the title, exactly?

The title of the song is most properly represented within quote marks and a hyphen between star and spangled. The definite article “The” is part of the title, so it should be capitalized and made part of the name. So, the title should be written as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Is the anthem based on a drinking song?

This answer is complicated. “The Anacreontic Song” is a club anthem, not a traditional pub ditty. However, it does contain a toast to the club in its final stanza. Certainly wine and drink were part of the club’s meetings which included a symphony concert, a dinner, and a late evening of part songs, catches, and glees. The Anacreontic Society was also in competition with other London clubs for members, so the musical rhetoric of a drinking song helped promote the club as a place to have fun. There were at least eighty different sets of lyrics known to have been sung to the tune of “The Anacreontic Song” in circulation before Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” These include several songs that might be considered drinking songs. They are titled “The New Bibo” and “Jack Oakum in the Suds.” Francis Scott Key might not have known the tune’s English heritage at all. He would have chosen the tune to celebrate the U.S. victory in Baltimore because of its up tempo spirit and because it had been used traditionally for lyrics celebrating American presidents and marking the Fourth of July holiday in the two decades before the Battle of Baltimore. He almost certainly knew the song “Adams and Liberty,” which was a Federalist song written to support President John Adams. So, the answer is yes the tune was used for drinking songs, but no Francis Scott Key did not base the anthem on a drinking song. See my Musicology Now blog post for a more extended examination of this topic.

Watch a recital program that reviews the full history of the melody and Key’s song…

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Mark Clague

See the forthcoming book: O Say Can You Hear?: A Cultural Biography of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for more information.