Oh, say can you hear?

Taking a closer look at "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Volume 112, No. 7/8July, 2012

Mark Clague

Jimi Hendrix famously performed a riveting arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock on Aug. 18, 1969. His performance of the anthem is shrouded in myth: for example, Hendrix performed the song not once, as many think, but over sixty times during a two-year period. This photo of Hendrix in Detroit in 1968 is by Leni Sinclair.

Independence day is just around the corner. For musicians and other Americans, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is so well known as to be all but unknown, and what many citizens do know about their national anthem is as likely myth as history.

Many assume, for example, that the anthem was written in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence and thus a date associated with the creation of the United States.

Others know that the anthem was inspired by a battle during the War of 1812, yet even they would be two years off.

In fact, the first drafts of Francis Scott Key’s poem date from the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, following the unsuccessful attack by the British navy on the city of Baltimore and its Fort McHenry.

Legend has it that Key woke up a prisoner aboard a U.S. truce ship, saw the young nation’s flag still flying over the fort, and was thus inspired to write the lyric.

It is certainly true that Key, who was a lawyer as well as an amateur poet, was held for the duration of the battle after negotiating the release of his friend, the popular town physician Dr. William Beanes, from British custody.

However, Key was unlikely to have literally viewed the flag, as his ship was reportedly some eight miles from the fort and thus probably well outside of visual contact.

Yet, the courage of the fort’s soldiers and the ingenuity and action taken by the local militia and townspeople to repel the British were indeed heroic and worthy of celebration. Baltimore’s “Defence of Fort McHenry” (as Key’s poem would originally be titled) did indeed help turn the tide of the war to America’s favor.

Another misconception about the anthem concerns who wrote the music. For more than a century, the composer’s name was all but unconnected to the tune.

The melody is not by Key, but was commonly known in the American colonies as part of the broadside ballad tradition in which local poets would write topical (and often political) lyrics to traditional melodies.

Printed as words only, these lyrics would circulate in pamphlets and newspapers, bringing notoriety and often humor to their subjects. Key’s “Defence of Fort McHenry” was first published in just this way.

The tune to which it is sung, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” dates from the 1770s and was written by the English organist John Stafford Smith as the anthem of London’s Anacreontic Society – a gentleman’s amateur music club.

The song was sung as a solo by the club’s president after dinner to introduce the vocal portion of the evening (preceded by, say, a Haydn symphony). Often referred to today as a “drinking song,” the lyric indeed contains a toast to the club’s future, yet its origins lie more in the supper club than the pub.

Despite myths to the contrary, it is most likely that Key wrote the lyric with the tune “Anacreon” already in mind. Not only is the metric form peculiar, but we know that Key had written a previous poem “When the Warrior Returns” in 1805 to the same tune.

Key’s poem was published as a broadside on Sept. 20 with the notice “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven.”

That Smith’s tune was intended to be sung by a trained voice also helps explain its unusually large melodic compass of a twelfth. Most national anthems range less than an octave or even a fifth.

The anthem is certainly hard for non-musicians to sing, yet this is not a compositional error. Instead, it reflects the tune’s origins as a solo song.

The anthem’s characteristic dotted rhythms are also a later addition, used to slow down performances and make the effect more noble and inspiring. Smith’s original used even eighths and a faster tempo, being more celebratory.

Finally, many assume that a nation’s anthem must have emerged at the country’s founding or soon after.

In fact, the “Banner” has been our national anthem for less than 100 years.

The tune came into common use for flag ceremonies during the Civil War, and only became an official song for the U.S. military in 1916, through an order by President Woodrow Wilson.

It was not until March 3, 1931 that Congress passed a resolution making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official anthem of the United States.

The choice was controversial: pacifists objected to its theme of war, prohibitionists objected to its ties to alcohol, and music educators complained that it was hard to sing, while still others objected to the tune’s English origins.

“America the Beautiful,” “Hail Columbia,” “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee / America,” “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” and even “Yankee Doodle” were all considered as alternatives.

If the question was decided today, “God Bless America” would be a leading candidate, but in 1931 Irving Berlin’s song was unknown. Beginning in 1938, vocalist Kate Smith’s radio, TV, and recorded performances made the song famous and its rocketing popularity inspired Woody Guthrie to write “This Land Is Your Land” (originally “God Blessed America for Me”) in critical response.

But as it has done for nearly two centuries in times of crisis (1931 was in the midst of the Great Depression), “The Star-Spangled Banner” offered a testimony to perseverance and hope that brought the nation together under not only the cloth of a flag, but the melody, harmony, and ritual passion of collective song.

Musicians as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Dudley Buck, Jose Feliciano, Igor Stravinsky, and Whitney Houston have followed Key’s inspiration to create personalized renditions that both celebrate the nation and give voice to the bold individualism and diverse perspectives that fuel America’s democracy.

In today’s polarized political environment, however, such high-profile individualistic renditions tend to stir controversy about the anthem’s “correct” realization.

Christina Aguilera’s 2011 performance at Super Bowl XLV, for example, was broadly criticized when she mixed up the lyrics and ornamented the melody with her characteristic stylings.

The interpretive line between what some hear as patriotic passion and others hear as disrespect is often blurred, but care in performing the lyrics is always required.

So, as you play those Fourth of July gigs this summer, offer your own passionate patriotic rendition of the banner and, if you have the chance, spread a little accurate information about the nation’s song.

Mark Clague is associate professor of musicology, American culture, and Afro-American studies at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. He can be reached at This article © June 2012 by Mark Clague. Read Clague’s blog of the origin of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at