Two hundred years ago, while the American lawyer and Sunday poet Francis Scott Key was negotiating the release of certain prisoners from the British during the War of 1812, circumstances compelled him to remain on board a British ship and watch helplessly as Fort McHenry was bombarded during the Battle of Baltimore on the night of September 13 through 14, 1814. Heartened by the sight of the American flag still waving the following morning, Key was inspired to write his most famous lyric, “Defence of Fort McHenry,” set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular British drinking song of the day.
The song has four stanzas, although most Americans are familiar with only the first, which asks a question but does get to the answer. Nowadays even extended performances almost always skip over the embarrassing third stanza, in which Key—a slave-owner himself and as District Attorney a frequent prosecutor of those who would speak out against the practice of slavery—has the nerve to jeer at the “hireling[s] and slave[s]” who had joined the British forces in order to secure their own blessings of liberty from lives of slavery and oppression. Even in Key’s lifetime the hypocrisy of these lyrics made them a target of parody.
Still, the song gained in popularity, especially during the nationalistic fervor of the Civil War, and by the end of the century “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as it had become known, was one of the most beloved of American patriotic songs and had become accepted by the armed forces as the de facto national anthem, in spite of its allegedly unsingable melody. Several other songs vied with Key’s for the position of official national anthem, including “Yankee Doodle,” “America,” and especially “Hail, Columbia.” There was even a contest for a new anthem that produced such dreadful proposals that we can be grateful to the committee that they did not designate a winner. In 1931, over a century and a half after the founding of the United States of America, Congress finally made things official and designated “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem.
Learn more about the origin and history of this song at the Smithsonian Institution’s online exhibit.
Read about the history of the song’s melody in The Music of The Star-Spangled Banner from Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill, an article by William Lichtenwanger that was first published in the July 1977 issue of the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress.
Listen to a jaunty arrangement for brass band that gives a sense of how it probably sounded in Francis Scott Key’s day. The printed sheet music for the first printed edition combining words and music is available online from the Library of Congress.
Listen to the official arrangement used by the U.S. Armed Forces Bands on the Internet Archive. An official edition of the conductor’s score and individual instrumental parts of this arrangement is available in the Government Documents collection in the UNT Eagle Commons Library.
Article by Bobby Griffith.
Photo of the flag that flew over Fort McHenry from the Smithsonian Institution.
Political broadside illustration from HarpWeek American Political Prints, 1766–1876.
Photo of score and parts to instrumental arrangement by Bobby Griffith.
Portrait of Francis Scott Key attributed to Joseph Wood from Wikimedia Commons.