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Star Spangled Banner
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Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 2002.
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Image: Star spangled banner The Star Spangled Banner. Percy Moran, artist, c1913. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Oh say can you see
by the dawn's early light...

There is little basis for the legend that the tune of our national anthem was an old English drinking song. On the other hand, there is strong evidence that the members of the club for which the music was originally composed, the Anacreontic Society, frequently lifted not only their voices but also their cups in song.

In the mid-1760s, a London society of amateur musicians, the Anacreontic Society, commissioned a young church musician, John Stafford Smith, to compose music for material written by its president, Ralph Tomlinson. Smith's tune, entitled "Anacreon in Heav'n," was a vehicle not only for the Society's accomplished amateurs, but for its best baritone singer to display virtuosity through an astounding vocal range. Its musical complexity has been compared to that of the famous "Toreador Song" in Bizet's opera Carmen.

First published in England, the tune appeared in North America before the end of the eighteenth century where, as often happened, new lyrics -- including "Adams and Liberty" and "Jefferson and Liberty" -- were written. The song's appeal may have been due at least in part to its unique metrical structure. Not found in any other song of the period, its striking meter may have been what attracted Francis Scott Key. By all accounts tone deaf, Key had already composed one other poem using the meter of the "Anacreontic Song" when he wrote "The Star Spangled Banner."

Image: Star spangled banner The Star spangled banner : national song(music cover). Stackpole, 1861. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

On September 14, 1814, while detained aboard a British ship during the bombardment of Ft. McHenry, Francis Scott Key witnessed at dawn the failure of the British attempt to take Baltimore. Based on this experience, he wrote a poem that poses the question "Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave?" Almost immediately Key's poem was published and wedded to the tune of the "Anacreontic Song." Long before the Civil War "The Star Spangled Banner" became the musical and lyrical embodiment of the American flag. During the latter war, songs such as "Farewell to the Star Spangled Banner" and "Adieu to the Star Spangled Banner Forever," clearly referencing Key's song, were published within the Confederacy.

On July 26, 1889, the Secretary of the Navy designated "The Star Spangled Banner" as the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag. And during Woodrow Wilson's presidency, it was chosen by the White House to be played wherever a national anthem was appropriate. Still the song was variously criticized as too violent in tone, too difficult to sing, and, by prohibitionists, as basically a drinking song. But on its side "The Star Spangled Banner" had a strong supporter in John Philip Sousa who, in 1931, opined that besides Key's "soul-stirring" words, "it is the spirit of the music that inspires." That same year, on March 3, President Herbert C. Hoover signed the Act establishing Key's poem and Smith's music as the official anthem of the United States.

The new law, however, did not specify an official text or musical arrangement, but left room for creative arrangements and interpretations of "The Star Spangled Banner." The standard instrumental version was unofficially established as the arrangement used by the U.S. service bands. However, other versions include: Igor Stravinsky's 1941 version for orchestra and male chorus, Duke Ellington's 1948 Cornell University arrangement, Jimi Hendrix's 1969 electric guitar version, José Feliciano's 1968 rendition, and the 1991 version by the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin.

The Anacreontic Society

Image: To Anacreon in Heavn "To Anacreon in Heavn". First U.S. Printing, 1804. Music Division, Library of Congress.

The Anacreontic Society was founded around 1766, and named in honor of the ancient Greek court poet Anacreon, who in the sixth century B.C., entertained his tyrannical patrons with lyrics celebrating wine, women, and song. In 1791 Franz Josef Haydn was the Society's honored guest at a performance of one of his own symphonies, which indicates the primacy of the group's musical interests. Yet as one witnesss wrote of another occasion:

At ten O Clock the Instrumental Concert ended, when we retired to the Supper rooms. After Supper, having sung "Non nobis Domine" we returned to the Concert Room ... After the Anacreontic Song had been sung, in the Chorus of the last verse of which, all the Members, Visitors, and Performers, joined, "hand in hand," we were entertained by the performance of various celebrated Catches, Glees, Songs, Duettos, and other Vocal, with some Rhetorical compositions, till twelve O Clock. The President having left the Chair, after that time, the proceedings were very disgraceful to the Society; as the greatest levity, and vulgar obscenity, generally prevailed.
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  1. Delaplaine, Edward S. Francis Scott Key and the national anthem: an address delivered before the Columbia Historical Society. Washington: Wilson-Epes Press, 1947. Call number: ML3561 .S8 D44
  2. Delaplaine, Edward S. Francis Scott Key: his life and times. Brooklyn, New York: Biography Press, 1937. Call number: PS2168 .D4
  3. Filby, P. W. and Edward G. Howard, compilers. Star spangled books: Books, sheet music, newspapers, manuscripts, and persons associated with "The star spangled banner." Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1972. Call number: ML3561 .S8 F54
  4. Lichtenwanger, William. The music of 'The Star-Spangled Banner': from Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress/Government Printing Office, 1977. Reprinted from the July 1977 Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress. Call numbers: (separate report) ML3561 .S8 L52, (Quarterly Journal) Z663 .A5, ISSN: 0041-7939
  5. Molotsky, Irvin. The flag, the poet, and the song: the story of the Star-Spangled Banner. New York: Plume, 2001. Call number: E356 .B2 M65 2001
  6. Sonneck, Oscar George Theodore. Report on "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Hail Columbia," "America," and "Yankee Doodle." Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1972. Call number: ML3551 .S6
  7. ________. The Star Spangled Banner. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1914. Call number: ML3561 .S762
  8. U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Committee on the Judiciary. The Star-Spangled Banner: hearings before subcommittee no. 4 of the Committee on the Judiciary. 85th Congress, 2nd session; 21, 22, and 28 May 1958. Call number: ML3561 .S8 U5
  9. Weybright, Victor. Spangled banner: the story of Francis Scott Key. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.: 1935. Call number: ML3561 .W4 S6