“The Star-Spangled Banner” is the national anthem of the United States of America.
The lyrics come from “Defence of Fort McHenry”, a poem written in 1814 by the 35-year-old amateur poet Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay during the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812.
The poem was set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London. “The Anacreontic Song” (or “To Anacreon in Heaven”), with various lyrics, was already popular in the United States. Set to Key’s poem and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”, it would soon become a well-known American patriotic song.
With a range of one and a half octaves, it is known for being difficult to sing. Although the song has four stanzas, only the first is commonly sung today, with the fourth (“O thus be it ever when free men shall stand…”) added on more formal occasions.
In the fourth stanza, Key urged the adoption of “In God is our Trust” as the national motto (“And this be our motto: In God is our Trust”). The United States adopted the motto “In God We Trust” by law in 1956.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was recognized for official use by the Navy in 1889 and the President in 1916, and was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931 (46 Stat. 1508, codified at 36 U.S.C. § 301), which was signed by President Herbert Hoover.
Before 1931, other songs served as the hymns of American officialdom. “Hail, Columbia” served this purpose at official functions for most of the 19th century. “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, whose melody was derived from the British national anthem, also served as a de facto anthem before the adoption of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Following the War of 1812 and subsequent American wars, other songs would emerge to compete for popularity at public events, among them “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Early history of the lyrics
An artist’s rendering of the battle at Fort McHenry. The 15-star, 15-stripe “Star Spangled Banner Flag” which inspired the poem. John Stafford Smith – memorial in Gloucester Cathedral, England
On September 3, 1814, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner, set sail from Baltimore aboard the ship HMS Minden flying a flag of truce on a mission approved by President James Madison. Their objective was to secure the exchange of prisoners, one of which was Dr. William Beanes, the elderly and popular town physician of Upper Marlboro, and a friend of Key’s who had been captured in his home.
Beanes was accused of aiding the arrest of British soldiers. Key and Skinner boarded the British flagship HMS Tonnant on September 7 and spoke with Major General Robert Ross and then-Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane over dinner, while they discussed war plans. At first, Ross and
Cochrane refused to release Beanes, but relented after Key and Skinner showed them letters written by wounded British prisoners praising Beanes and other Americans for their kind treatment.
Because Key and Skinner had heard details of the plans for the attack on Baltimore, they were held captive until after the battle, first aboard HMS Surprise, and later back on the HMS Minden. After the bombardment, certain British gunboats attempted to slip past the fort and effect a landing in a cove to the west of it, but they were turned away by fire from nearby Fort Covington, the city’s last line of defense.
During the rainy night, Key had witnessed the bombardment and observed that the fort’s smaller “storm flag” continued to fly, but once the shell and Congreve rocket barrage had stopped, he would not know how the battle had turned out until dawn. By then, the storm flag had been lowered, and the larger flag had been raised.
Key was inspired by the American victory and the sight of the large American flag flying triumphantly above the fort. This flag, with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, came to be known as the Star Spangled Banner Flag and is today on display in the National Museum of American History, a treasure of the Smithsonian Institution. It was restored in 1914 by Amelia Fowler, and again in 1998 as part of an ongoing conservation program.
Aboard the ship the next day, Key wrote a poem on the back of a letter he had kept in his pocket. At twilight on 16 September, he and Skinner were released in Baltimore. He completed the poem at the Indian Queen Hotel, where he was staying, and he entitled it “Defence of Fort McHenry”.
Interestingly, much of the idea of the poem and even some of the wording is arguably derived from an earlier song by Key, also set to the tune of The Anacreontic Song. The song, known as “When the Warrior Returns”, is said to have been written in honor of Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart on their return from the First Barbary War.
According to the historian Robin Blackburn, the words “the hireling and slave” allude to the fact that the British attackers had many ex-slaves in their ranks, who had been promised liberty and demanded to be placed in the battle line “where they might expect to meet their former
Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson. Nicholson saw that the words fit the popular melody “The Anacreontic Song”, of English composer John Stafford Smith, which was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London. Nicholson took the poem to a printer in Baltimore, who anonymously printed broadside copies of it – the song’s first known printing – on September 17; of these, two known copies survive. Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript copy of his “Star-Spangled Banner” poem. It is now on display at the Maryland Historical Society.
On September 20, both the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the song, with the note “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven”. The song quickly became popular, with seventeen newspapers from Georgia to New Hampshire printing it. Soon after, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together under the title “The Star-Spangled Banner”, although it was originally called “Defence of Fort McHenry”. The song’s popularity increased, and its first public performance took place in October, when Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang sang it at Captain McCauley’s tavern.
Commemorative plaque in Washington, D.C. marking the site at 601 Pennsylvania Avenue where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was first publicly sung
The song gained popularity throughout the nineteenth century and bands played it during public events, such as July 4 celebrations.
On July 27, 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy signed General Order #374, making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that “The Star-Spangled Banner” be played at military and other appropriate occasions.
Although the playing of the song two years later during the seventh-inning stretch of the 1918 World Series is often noted as the first instance that the anthem was played at a baseball game, evidence shows that the “Star-Spangled Banner” was performed as early as 1897 at opening day ceremonies in Philadelphia and then more regularly at the Polo Grounds in New York City beginning in 1898. However, the tradition of performing the national anthem before every baseball game began in World War II. Today, the anthem is performed before the beginning of all MLS, NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL games (with at least one American team playing), as well as in a pre-race ceremony portion of every NASCAR race.
On November 3, 1929, Robert Ripley drew a panel in his syndicated cartoon, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, saying “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem”. In 1931, John Philip Sousa published his opinion in favor, stating that “it is the spirit of the music that inspires” as much as it is Key’s “soul-stirring” words. By a law signed on March 3, 1931 by President Herbert Hoover, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted as the official national anthem of the United States.
The first “pop” performance of the anthem heard by mainstream America was by Puerto Rican singer and guitarist Jose Feliciano.
He shocked some people in the crowd at Tiger Stadium in Detroit and some Americans when he strummed a slow, bluesy rendition of the national anthem before game five of the 1968 World Series between Detroit and St. Louis. This rendition started contemporary “Star-Spangled Banner” controversies. The response from many in Vietnam-era America was generally negative, given that 1968 was a tumultuous year for the United States. Despite the controversy, Feliciano’s performance opened the door for the countless interpretations of the “Star-Spangled Banner” heard today. One week after Feliciano’s performance, the anthem was in the news again when American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos lifted controversial raised-fists at the 1968 Olympics while the “Star-Spangled Banner” played at a medal ceremony.
Marvin Gaye gave a soul-influenced performance at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game and Whitney Houston gave a soulful rendition before Super Bowl XXV in 1991, which was released as a single that charted at number 20 in 1991 and number 6 in 2001 (the only times the anthem has been on the Billboard Hot 100). Another famous instrumental interpretation is Jimi Hendrix’s version which was a set-list staple from autumn 1968 until his death in September 1970. Incorporating sonic effects to emphasize the “rockets’ red glare”, and “bombs bursting in air”, it became a late-1960s emblem. Roseanne Barr gave a controversial performance of the anthem at a baseball
game on July 25, 1990. The comedienne belted out a screechy rendition of the song, and afterward she attempted a gesture of ball players by spitting and grabbing her crotch as if adjusting a protective cup. The song and the closing routine offended many in the audience and, later, across the country after it was played on television.
In March 2005, a government-sponsored program, the National Anthem Project, was launched after a Harris Interactive poll showed many adults knew neither the lyrics nor the history of the anthem.
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Cover of sheet music for “The Star-Spangled Banner”, transcribed for piano by Ch. Voss, Philadelphia: G. Andre & Co., 1862
Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore, dimly seen through the glass of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Additional Civil War period lyrics
In indignation over the start of the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes added a fifth stanza to the song in
1861 which appeared in songbooks of the era.
When our land is illumined with liberty’s smile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained,
Who their birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.
In a version hand-written by Francis Scott Key in 1840, the third line reads “Whose bright stars and broad stripes,
through the clouds of the fight,”.
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