By Ricky O’Bannon
Most of us learn somewhere in school that Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defence of Fort McHenry,” written during a Baltimore-based battle in the War of 1812 was attached to an English drinking song to become the American national anthem.
But much of the colorful history of the “Star-Spangled Banner” isn’t as widely known. In honor of the 200th anniversary of Key’s poem, below are some of the highlights of a history that includes police trouble for Stravinsky, significant musical changes and official recognition thanks in no small part to Ripley’s Believe it or Not!
1. The song was a broadside ballad
Broadside ballads date back to the mid-1500s in Europe. Lyrics about love, life or a newsworthy topic of the day — often political — were published on inexpensive, one-sided broadsheets and associated with a melody their audience was expected to know. Broadsheets were imported from Europe to America and were one of the earliest forms of journalism in the United States.
When Key wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner” poem, the song was first published as a broadside ballad before being picked up by two Baltimore newspapers and spreading to other East Coast newspapers.
In many ways the ballads were the popular equivalent of the Protestant hymn tradition, where new hymns (lyrics) were regularly written and sung to pre-existing hymn tunes (melodies.)
2. Before the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the melody was a drinking song turned campaign song
Perhaps ironically, the melody of the “Star-Spangled Banner” is English not American. The tune comes from the song “To Anacreon in Heav’n,” which was the official song of an 18th century London men’s social club called the Anacreontic Society. Socializing was the main purpose of the Anacreontic Society, but music was another passion of the club whose members were amateur musicians. The group regularly sponsored concerts, including one by Joseph Haydn.
Before the melody became culturally inseparable from Key’s lyrics, another poem called “Adams and Liberty” used the tune for a campaign song. Written by Robert Treat Paine, Jr. and published like Key’s lyrics as a broadside, “Adams and Liberty” warned against mercantilism and foreign involvement, particularly with the French after the XYZ Affair. President John Adams’ campaign used the song as something of an attack ad against French-friendly Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election. For his part, Jefferson fired back with the campaign song “Jefferson and Liberty."
“Adams and Liberty”
3. It sounds a lot different today than 200 years ago
While originally intended for a group of singers, the “Star-Spangled Banner” has become a soloist affair. Similarly, the tempo and general tone have changed since the piece was first conceived. The early renditions of the anthem were much closer to this version of the Anacreontic theme.
4. The US didn’t have a national anthem until 1931, and it could have taken longer if not for a cartoon.
In 1929, Robert Ripley — of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” fame — published a cartoon pointing out that America had no national anthem. Ripley received backlash and told angry letter-writers that their efforts would be better spent writing their congressmen, which led to a 5 million-signature petition to Congress.
The “Star-Spangled Banner” had been used widely — particularly by the Navy — during flag-raising ceremonies, but other songs including “Hail Columbia” and “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” were also used at official occasions. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a law making the “Star-Spangled Banner” the undisputed anthem.
5. Arrange at your own risk
Musicians looking to reimagine the “Star-Spangled Banner” haven’t always been received kindly. Jimi Hendrix probably didn’t upset many people he worried about with his distorted version at Woodstock, but José Feliciano said the controversy that followed his 1968 version at game 5 of the World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals shadowed his career for years. Feliciano believed his reimagining of the anthem was a loving tribute to the country that gave his family a better life, but he said he heard stories of veterans throwing their shoes at their televisions as he sang and many radio stations stopped playing Feliciano’s songs. Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who was also a songwriter, publicly defended Feliciano and the two became close friends.
Igor Stravinsky wrote a few arrangements of the “Star-Spangled Banner” that featured modern harmonies, and in 1944 one of those arrangements got him in hot water Boston law enforcement. Police fined (but did not arrest as one myth holds) Stravinsky under a Massachusetts law — which is still be on the books today — that levies up to a $100 fine for altering the anthem. A state senator in Indiana proposed a similar law in 2012. Luckily for New Englander Charles Ives, there are no laws on altered harmonies for “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.)”
One of the more inventive arrangements of the anthem was authored by John Philip Sousa for the Chicago World’s Fair, which was written in the style of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture. Sousa was one of five musicians who were commissioned by Woodrow Wilson to vote on a standardized, official version of the song. Sousa also advocated for using the “Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem in 1931 saying the “spirit of the music inspires” while Congress was debating whether to make a song with somewhat violent subject matter the official anthem.