The Star Spangled Banner

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Hostages, bombs, gentleman, and more. Revisit the journey that our national anthem took to becoming what it is today.

Part 1

Forts, ports, and British ships

Who: Francis Scott Key, lawyer and recreational poet

Where: Fort McHenry, Baltimore

When: September, 1814

What: The Defence of Fort M’Henry, a poem

After burning down Washington D.C., British troops headed for Baltimore. When a friend of Key’s was taken hostage, he found the ship where his friend was held and negotiated his release.

Despite their release, Key and prisoners were not allowed to return to shore: Fort McHenry soon would be under attack.

As Key witnessed the attack unfold, he noticed the American flag that stayed raised through the night and hoisted high the next morning. The image inspired him to write down what he had witnessed. Once the battle ended, Key and prisoners were sent back to shore.

Key originally titled his poem The Defence of Fort M’Henry, but it was later changed to The Star Spangled Banner, as this line is in every stanza.

Part 2

The gentleman’s club

Like many songs from the era, the tune to The Star Spangled Banner is not original. The tune was a hymn for the Anacreontic Society, a gentleman’s club for amateur musicians in Britain.

The Anacreontic Song, or, To Anacreon in Heaven is the club’s anthem, written by John Stafford Smith sometime before 1777. This is a melody that Key would have heard growing up and was very familiar with when writing his The Defence of Fort M’Henry.

Scholars have concluded that Key wrote his poem with this particular tune in mind because of it’s unusual rhythm and meter which fit easily with the melody.

Part 3

The anthem today

The Star Spangled Banner was adopted as the US national anthem in 1931, though there is no official arrangement. This is a bit of a double edged sword, because performers are free to make any stylistic choice they wish. It seems now that no two performances today are identical.

Some scholars applaud the freedom of style in performing the national anthem, because the freedom of choice reflects the patriotic values of liberty and individualism. In fact, some of the most well received performances are popular because of the individuality in their performance:

But, stylistic freedom can have its downside. Some performances have become infamous because of this:

Some performances we love, others make us cringe, but we’re free to sing the anthem however we like, thanks to Francis Scott Key and others. Enjoy the music and have a happy Fourth!