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The Star-Spangled Banner: The Original Lyrics

Star-Spangled Banner
The flag that Francis Scott Key looked at while writing "The Star-Spangled Banner".  Note the 15 stars and 15 stripes.

If you’re an American (and quite possibly even if you’re not), you’ve certainly heard the tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” numerous times.  It’s a stirring melody, and can often sound very proud, and if someone asked you to hum a few bars, you probably could do a creditable job of it, even if you have no musical ability at all.  The tune is that familiar.  Of course, it has another name that you probably know better: “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

But the song’s first name was “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  The song asserts that Anacreon is in heaven, right from the first line.  Whether Anacreon actually is in heaven, I’ll take no position on, but he most certainly is dead.  Anacreon was a Greek poet who lived from circa 582 BCE to 485 BCE, which is a remarkably advanced age for the times.  Anacreon was celebrated for his songs about drinking and love and having a good time.  Maybe not the weightiest of literature, but even the most serious poets and thinkers need to take a break now and again.

Anacreon was honored by the Anacreontic Society, which was a gentlemen’s club founded in London around 1766.  Gentlemen’s clubs of the day were places for well-placed men in society to gather together, enjoy each others’ company, and presumably network.  The Anacreontic Society gathered every Wednesday evening to drink and sing.  “To Anacreon in Heaven” (alternatively called “The Anacreontic Song”) was their theme song.  It was a devilishly difficult tune to sing to, but they managed to come up with words that fit the melody.  It started like this:

To ANACREON in Heav’n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That he their Inspirer and Patron would be;
When this Answer arrived from the JOLLY OLD GRECIAN
“Voice, Fiddle and Flute,
“No longer be mute,
“I’ll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
“And besides I’ll instruct you, like me, to intwine,
“The Myrtle of VENUS and BACCHUS’s Vine.”

The peculiar use of capital letters (much in the fashion of modern German) appear in the original lyric sheet.  The words were long ascribed to the president of the Anacreontic Society, Ralph Tomlinson; no one knew who wrote the music. It wasn’t until around 1950 that someone discovered among the papers of Richard John Samuel Stevens, also a member of the Society, a claim that he’d written the music.  Stevens also noted in his papers that it wasn’t Ralph Tomlinson but fellow Society member John Stafford Smith who’d written the words.  The mystery was thus put to rest forever.

A typical Wednesday night with the Anacreontic Society.

The song contained six verses, which were basically about how the members of the Society were the greatest musicians ever, could drink a lot, and managed to win admiration from both women and the gods.  It’s full of classical references, and is basically light verse for heavy drinkers.

The Anacreontic Society last met in 1792, but its theme song was not put to rest forever.  People liked the song, and its stirring melody was a popular one for brass bands to perform at military events, political events, or anything else that someone felt needed a dash of pomp and dignity.  The music might be accompanied by singing, or it might not.  Regardless, it was a well-known tune in both Europe and North America.

It’s because of this that it’s not surprising that Francis Scott Key wrote his poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry” with words that fit Stafford Smith’s melody perfectly.  He clearly had this song going through his mind while writing patriotic verse about being held prisoner in a British frigate in Baltimore Harbor the night of September 13, 1814, while British forces attacked Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.  Key was able to watch the battle through one of the ship’s windows, and the poem described what he saw and how he felt at the time.  The famous first verse describes the battle, and how wonderful it was that, after a night of bombardment from the world’s strongest navy, For McHenry had not succumbed:

Oh say, can you see?  By the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d 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 rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Key’s alternative lyrics became popular, as well.  In copies of sheet music sold, you could find his lyrics just as easily as the original Anacreontic ones.  Of course, when the song was used for patriotic events, the patriotic lyrics were favored.  This wasn’t the only patriotic tune in use, either.  “Hail, Columbia” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” were also popular choices, as was “America the Beautiful”, which was written later on.

The current Maryland license plates announce state pride in being the setting of the national anthem.

Over time, “The Star-Spangled Banner” gained in popularity, eclipsing the competition.  In 1899, the US Navy selected it as its official song, and in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be performed at all official military functions.  In 1918, Congressman John Lithicum of Maryland proposed a bill that “The Star-Spangled Banner” be made the national anthem of the United States, but the bill did not pass.

Americans, for their part, didn’t seem to mind.  Not until November 3, 1929, when the popular daily cartoon Ripley’s Believe It or Not took note that America had no national anthem.  This stirred passions in many quarters, and a movement to correct this oversight took off.  Largely by the efforts of the VFW, the United States Congress was sent a petition that five million citizens asked that it be officially made the whole nation’s own anthem.  On March 4, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed into law a bill to make “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem.

Ripley’s 1929 cartoon pointing out that there is no national anthem of the United States.  Certainly “To Anacreon in Heaven” was a drinking song, but vulgar?  The Anacreontic Society might have had something to say about that.

The song was adopted, the United States had a national anthem, and everyone was happy.  Well, not everyone.  In 1940, folk singer Woody Guthrie, known for stirring up trouble on behalf of the common man, decided America needed a better anthem.  It was born out of frustration not with “The Star-Spangled Banner” but with hearing popular singer Kate Smith on the radio, singing over and over Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”.  In reaction, Guthrie took the tune of a song by the Carter Family called “When the World’s on Fire” and wrote a sarcastic reaction titled “God Blessed America for Me”.  Guthrie later toned it down a bit and rewrote it as “This Land is Your Land”.  He saw his song as a suggestion for a more peaceful, more accessible national anthem.  It became popular, though there was never a serious attempt to make it the national anthem.  Its famous opening verse went:

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From California to the New York island,
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.

The song is pretty tame for Guthrie, who was known for his left-wing political views.  In fact his original version of the song had a couple of other verses which he removed before trying to promote it as a national anthem:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn't say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

And more pointedly:

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

Woody Guthrie performs the original and controversial version of "This Land is Your Land".

In more recent years—in 2017, in fact—others have raised concerns about “The Star-Spangled Banner”.  Specifically, the problem is with its lesser-known third verse.  The NAACP and the California ACLU complained about a couple of Key’s lines:

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.

Francis Scott Key was, in fact, a slave owner, and was fiercely opposed to abolition.  These lines are a clear warning to slaves that it’s not worth it to run away from their masters, and that this land of the free will make sure that if you try to flee, you won’t get away with it.  As of this writing, no official editing has been done to the official version, but time will tell how this perilous fight plays out.

The U-M American Music Institute performs The Anacreontic Song in its entirety.


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