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Star Spangled Banner Story, American Spirit, British Drinking Song


The Star Spangled Banner Story ain’t what they taught us back in school, although that version skims some truth. I wanted to know more. The song brings a lump up in my throat every time I hear it float over 50,000 fellow fans at Yankee Stadium. I can’t help it, and I squeeze my eyelids to hold back tears.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

By David Stone

Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

This song’s planted in my heart. It’s stuck there, even now after I’ve heard it thousands of times. With and without the words, no matter, it still packs a wallop of patriotic passion.

The lyrics were written by an amateur poet witnessing an American victory. Less known is that the tune written by a British teenager. It was a popular drinking song before Francis Scott Key wrote a single verse.

Our National Anthem’s Story

NASA's Space Launch System and American Flag
NASA’s Space Launch System and American Flag by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

Americans, from grade school on, are taught that the Revolutionary War put an end to British power in the original thirteen colonies. But serious disputes continued as did British occupation in some places. Tensions grew until the United States declared war on the United Kingdom in 1812.

Multiple dynamics drove the War of 1812. Most battles took place on U.S. soil as the final phase of the struggle for independence played out.

In 1814, the British attacked The Capitol and burned the White House, but an attempt to seize Baltimore failed. Forces stationed in the harbor at Fort McHenry’s repulsed the attack.

The Battle of Baltimore inspired Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old lawyer, to start writing Defence of Fort M’Henry. Not as sexy as The Star Spangled Banner, is it?

Key watched from a British ship, detained on a mission to free a friend

Key’s repeated “star-spangled banner” in the next to last line of each verse, and encouraged the name change. It stuck.

The suggestion that it be sung to the tune of Anacreon In Heaven was Key’s idea. The British drinking song was already popular in the states.

It was an odd choice.

It was even odder because the music’s one-and-a-half octave range made it difficult to sing, but maybe the drinking helped.

But You Still Can’t Sing It While Buried in Crowd Noise

I learned that, to put it simply, I can’t sing. Can’t carry a tune in a bucket. I was even ridiculed once for spoiling Happy Birthday, and so, I rarely sing along. I’m happy to stand there in the crowd, my cap off, and enjoy the flood of musical patriotism.

In recent years, I wish some people shared that position, even some who sing it well.

The problem is that egos make it about the singer, not the song.

Fortunately, most of us forgot Roseanne Barr butchering it in 1990, and that was so long ago she still had a surname.

And, then, there’s the bad judgment of fans who hoot and clap before the singer or band finishes. Patriotic drama falls to the draw of game action.

Contemporary singing styles force their way into the traditions. Its like fine wine sipped with a paper straw. They bring nothing more than name value, and the Star Spangled Banner doesn’t need it..

At times, though, low comedy trumps the annoyance.

Hey, We Won the First First World War!

The Star Spangled Banner salutes a resolute band of brothers that kept 15 stars and 15 bars flying. They whipped a powerful onslaught from one of the world’s mightiest powers.

The War of 1812 in America was, historically, the real First World War.

With Great Britain and France already eat war and Napoleon leading troops into Russia, the conflict spread over a huge section of the globe.

In America, more than a dozen Indian tribes joined the war, most on the side of Great Britain. The threat to American independence was real, fought in our waters and across our lands.

Great Britain won the Wars of 1812, except in America. They crush an overstretched and maniacally overconfident Napoleon everywhere else.

Otherwise, we’d have no Star Spangled Banner story.

Finally, American forces repulsed British power, ending the war for independence after nearly 40 years.

That’s what Francis Scott Key saw, and it inspired him so intensely he wrote his poem. He scratched it out on used paper before he was released from British detention.

The Rest of the Star Spangled Banner Story

We all know the lyrics by heart, don’t we?

Well, no.

Most Americans know the first verse, which is all we usually sing or hear. But Francis Scott Key composed three more, and during the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., composed another that was added to songbooks in 1861.

So, what are we missing? Quite a lot, really, the rest of the national anthem story.

In the second stanza, Key describes the thrill of seeing the full-sized American flag flying over Fort McHenry at sunrise, replacing the smaller battle flag that he’d seen only during flashes of firepower during the nighttime battle.

“‘Tis the star spangled-banner! O! long may it wave!”

He goes on, in the third stanza, to describe how our country was saved as our soldiers “washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

In a historically telling verse, he writes that “No refuge could save the hireling and slave…”

Freed American slaves fought along with the British, hoping to defeat their former masters.

The fourth stanza declares victory and the peace that follows. It declares a common theme in the fight for independence: “In God is our trust.”

Francis Scott Key probably wasn’t fooling around when he suggested his lyric be sung to the tune of John Stafford Smith’s The Anacreontic Song. He probably just wanted to use music a lot of people would already know — from singing while drinking.

But it does make a colorful footnote for America’s history at the real end of the Revolutionary War

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