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Saturday, February 23, 2013


In 1814 following the burning of the Capitol at Washington, the British moved on the harbor at Baltimore. A young lawyer named Francis Scott Key, representing President Madison, boarded a British warship to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. While aboard, Key overheard the British attack plan. So he had to remain on that ship until the battle was concluded.

Key was witness to the bombardment of the American fortifications at Ft. McHenry which guarded the harbor entrance. The fort’s flag was waving as darkness ensured. The bombardment lasted all night. At dawn Key looked toward the fort and saw that the American’s flag was still there. He was so moved with patriotism that he wrote a poem on the spot called “Defense of Fort McHenry.” Almost everyone knows that Francis Scott Key poem became the words to “The Star Spangled Banner.”

However very few people are aware that an Englishman wrote the music. Key’s brother-in-law saw that the poem’s words fit perfectly with the tune “The Anacreontic Song” which was the official song of London’s Anacreontic Society, a gentleman’s club of amateur musicians. It was written by Englishman John Stafford Smith. He of course did not set out to write an anthem for the United States, a nation with which his native country would fight two wars in his lifetime. And he had no way of knowing it would become, in order, a religious hymn, a popular drinking song in the pubs of London and America, and finally the anthem of the United States of America.

Key could not know that the words of his patriotic poem would be sung to the tune of an English drinking song and become the nation’s anthem 117 years after he wrote it.

Later in 1814, newspapers began circulating the words and the music together, and the song became popular. It was first performed publicly at Captain McCauley’s Tavern in Baltimore, an inauspicious debut. Throughout the rest of the 19th Century, the song was frequently played at public events. In 1889, the U.S. Navy made it its official song when raising the flag. Eight years later “The Star Spangled Banner” was performed at the opening of baseball season in Philadelphia and then in New York the following year.

 “The Star Spangled Banner” was performed for years and even played as an anthem at the Olympic Games, but never officially designated as the nation’s anthem.

 About 1929 the editors for “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” newspaper column became aware that the United Sates had never adopted an official anthem and spread the word. Songwriters from New York to Hollywood composed patriotic songs and urged their congressmen to submit them for consideration. It was debated that “The Star Spangled Banner” was not appropriate, because it was hard to sing and people could not remember the words. But several famous American musicians supported it. John Philip Sousa loved it. At the urging of many, the U.S. Congress created an act in 1931 officially naming “The Star Spangled Banner” the anthem of the United States.

Unfortunately, neither Francis Scott Key nor John Stafford Smith were around to collect royalties. As far as the song being too hard to sing, well maybe a couple of mugs of beer might help.

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