We’ve already spent some time exploring the history of The Star-Spangled Banner, but there are still a lot of interesting facts that you may not know. You may have heard the tune comes from a drinking song (false) or that the range of the song makes it difficult for your average person to sing (very true). It’s surprising to think that, after 200 years, there are a lot of things we don’t know about our national anthem. Such as…
The tune was originally an anthem for a British social society
Many people assume, since the song mentions drinking quite a bit, that it’s chiefly a drinking song — which the members of the society it represented would likely agree is poppycock. The original tune was called To Anacreon in Heaven, and Key had the tune in mind already while writing his poem. Anacreon was a Greek court musician from the 6th century BC with whom the members of said society identified greatly. Why, you ask?
The society was a group of amateur musicians
That’s right. The Anacreon Society was made up of a number of professionals who also happened to love music. The song was meant to celebrate that love of music. If you read the lyrics, though, you will probably see why it was taken up as a tavern song. It’s arguable that the Anacreon Society was one of the very first drinking groups with a music problem.
The song is meant for harpsichord and four-part harmony
Sound like any drinking song you know? Come to think of it, does anybody sing while they’re drinking anymore? Regardless, the tradition of singing whilst drinking was strong at the time, but it had no impact on this song. As stated earlier, the society was made up of musicians and, while they probably could play the harpsichord passably while drunk, it just would not have been practical. No, the night of drinking would have opened with singing the theme song, quite likely led by a more talented tenor as the song’s range is difficult for your average singer. And who do we have to thank for that?
John Stafford Smith wrote the original tune, and he was kind of a big deal
Though the Anacreon Society was for amateur musicians, that doesn’t mean they were all slouches. John Stafford Smith was a young musician at the time he joined the group. In his early twenties, he partnered with Ralph Tomlinson to write the Society’s theme (Tomlinson wrote the lyrics). The tune would go on to be wildly popular, and Smith went on to greatness as the first organist of the Chapel Royal for over thirty years. He never lived to see it become the U.S. national anthem, but he did see it stolen quite a few times; for example…
Key wasn’t the first to steal the melody for his own song
In fact, it was used many times for many songs. One of the most popular of these songs was called Adams and Liberty, written by Robert Treat Paine. Does that last name sound familiar? It should. Robert Treat Paine was the grandson of famous revolutionary Thomas Paine. His song was published in 1798, sixteen years before Key’s piece. However, a simple run-through of some patriotic songs will reveal that reassigning tunes to new lyrics was quite common, and not only in America. In fact…
The U.S. wasn’t the first to use the tune for a national anthem
The tune was also briefly the Luxembourger National Anthem in the mid-1800s. Luxembourg became a country in 1839 and went searching for a new national anthem. Rather than write their own anthem immediately, however, they decided to use the tune, as it was still very popular. It remained the anthem until 1895 when it was replaced by Ons Heemecht (“Our Homeland”) which was written by Michel Lentz and Jean Antoine Zinnen.
It may never have happened without John Phillip Sousa
I’ll admit, this statement is at least partially conjecture, but it is by no means a stretch. In 1931, when the clamor for a national anthem was finally about to be answered, there were plenty of other songs in the running. America the Beautiful, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and Hail, Columbia were all strong candidates. However, only one song received the support of the most famous musician in the nation at the time. In the beginning of the 20th century, John Phillip Sousa was a rock star and de facto king of the patriotic tune. When he spoke, others listened, and Herbert Hoover certainly listened. In 1931, Hoover signed a law making The Star-Spangled Banner the official national anthem of the United States.