Star-Spangled Mythbusting

Correcting the History of America’s National Anthem

For the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a musicologist takes a closer look at the history of the anthem.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" (1814) plays a vital role in bringing together the United States of America. The very idea of nation is impossible without symbols that spark a unifying imagination—the ability of a large, diverse people to see itself as an interconnected whole. "Old Glory" and the song for which it stands are essential components of American dreamings.

Yet the very centrality of "The Star-Spangled Banner" to American identity obscures the specifics of its history. Francis Scott Key's song is so well known as to be all but unknown. Information about the song is certainly easy to find, but only rarely does it penetrate the surface of myth. The anthem's upcoming bicentennial year, however, offers the opportunity for musicians to share recent scholarship on the anthem with audiences across the nation.

The root of the confusion about the song’s history lies with Francis Scott Key (1779–1843) himself. The author of the nation's anthem was rather modest about his lyrical talents and, while justly famous in his lifetime as the writer of "The Star-Spangled Banner," he never preserved a detailed account of its creation for posterity. Key seems to have felt that a patriotic lyric should not glorify its author, but rather the heroes whose actions inspired his pen. He put these values into practice, leaving his own name off of the original printing of his lyric, and distributing the first thousand copies among the soldiers who had defended Fort McHenry. Key’s song is first and foremost a celebration of their courage.

Without a first-hand account of how his most famous words came to be, Key in effect left the task to others. Whether by design or distance from the event, these second-hand accounts confuse as much as they clarify. Over the past century, however, researchers (often musicologists at the U.S. Library of Congress) have shed light on the anthem's history. Building upon their work, several persistent myths about Key's song can now be qualified and corrected.

Myth #1: Francis Scott Key was held prisoner aboard a British ship during the bombardment of Baltimore.
Correction: Key was aboard his own American truce ship during the battle.

Key and fellow lawyer John S. Skinner, the U.S. Agent for Prisoners of War, sailed from Baltimore down the Patapsco River hoping to meet the British fleet somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay. They were on a mission of mercy to negotiate the release of the elderly doctor William Beanes, a civilian non-combatant who had been taken prisoner by the British as they departed Washington DC after burning the White House and other government buildings. Key was a persuasive addition to the negotiating team because of his close family ties to both the United States and England. Their mission led to success.

Upon the release of the doctor, Key, Beanes, and Skinner were moved from the H.M.S. Tonnant, where they had negotiated with British Admiral Cochrane, to the H.M.S. Surprise and then back to their own American truce ship. During the harrowing 25-hour bombardment, their ship was tethered to a British vessel and placed under guard in order to prevent Key and his companions from revealing to Baltimore's defenders any attack plans overheard. Key was likely some six to eight miles from America's Fort McHenry, which guarded against certain American defeat by defending the entrance to Baltimore's harbor. Superior British weapons pounded the fort from bomb ships anchored safely out of range of the fort's own guns. Yet Key rose on the morning of September 14, 1814 and through the lens of his spyglass saw America's 15-star, 15-stripe flag waving defiantly over the fort. He was elated and relieved, certain that God had intervened.

One source of the confusion over Key’s whereabouts during the battle is Percy Moran's commonly reprinted painting "By Dawn's Early Light" (1912). Painted 98 years after the event depicted, the image offers a romantic reimagining of the scene. Moran portrays Key aboard a British vessel and much too close to the fort as the flag is revealed by the rising sun. Such artistic license allows the painter to contrast American joy with British despair and to show Fort McHenry's flag more prominently and clearly to the contemporary viewer.


"By Dawn's Early Light. Percy Moran, artist. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Myth #2: Francis Scott Key drafted the anthem on the back of an envelope.
Correction: Most likely Key wrote his draft on a clean sheet of paper using pen and ink.

While the original draft of Key's lyric is lost, envelopes were not commonly used in 1814. Letters were written on paper that was folded and sealed with wax. Detained during the battle aboard his own American truce ship—one that would have been amply provisioned for an official diplomatic mission—Key would have had plenty of paper and other writing supplies at hand. The notion that he would have used an envelope is born of the myth that he was instead a prisoner aboard a British vessel at the critical moment of inspiration and would have had to improvise his writing supplies.

Myth #3: Francis Scott Key wrote a "poem" that was later set to music by someone else.
Correction: "The Star-Spangled Banner" was always conceived of as a song by Key and he wrote the text to fit a specific melody of his own choosing.

Usually referred to as a poet, Key is more accurately remembered—at least in connection with "The Star-Spangled Banner"—as a lyricist. In fact, he wrote lyrics for a total of three songs and ten hymns. In all cases, he invented words to fit previously existing musical models. This was a typical practice of Key's era when hand-engraved music printing was expensive, but printing words alone was simple, fast, and cheap. In one strategy known as the broadside ballad tradition, lyrics would be written to match familiar tunes and published as text only in newspapers and books. The melodies for these "broadside ballads" were usually indicated in a note below their titles.

The very first printing of Key's now famous lyric, for example, indicated that the words were to be sung to the "Tune—Anacreon in Heaven." Known also as "To Anacreon in Heaven" or "The Anacreontic Song," this composition was the anthem of a late-eighteenth-century amateur musician's club in London, England called the Anacreontic Society. Although slightly different in details of rhythm and melodic contour, its melody is easily recognizable as the tune sung today in performances of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

We are also certain that Key knew the Anacreontic melody before he wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner," because he had used the melody before. Nine years before the attack on Baltimore, Key wrote his first patriotic song—"When the Warrior Returns"—to honor Commodore Stephen Decatur and Captain Charles Stewart, two heroes of the Tripolitan War. Following broadside practice, Key wrote the words to fit the melody of "The Anacreontic Song" and reportedly sang the song himself at a dinner in the heroes' honor. Key even reused several poetic devices from this earlier 1805 lyric for his "Defence of Fort McHenry" (as "The Star-Spangled Banner" was originally titled). These include rhymes such as "wave" and "brave," as well as the phrase "star-spangled."

The melody of "The Anacreontic Song" was used frequently for broadside ballads in Key's era. More than 80 Anacreontic lyrics appeared in print before 1820. As a poetic form, however, it was unique. It features eight line stanzas—four is typical—and these eight lines contain nine rhymes. Each line has an end rhyme plus there is an extra internal rhyme in line five. Key's 1814 lyric has this extra rhyme in the phrase "And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there." It therefore fits precisely the structural model unique to parodies of "The Anacreontic Song." It is simply implausible that Key wrote an eight-line lyric with nine rhymes by chance.

Myth #4: Key's song is based on, or uses the melody of, an old English drinking song.
Correction: "The Anacreontic Song" was the constitutional anthem of a London-based, amateur music society…but it’s complicated.

Francis Scott Key would have most likely encountered the melody of "The Anacreontic Song" initially through its most popular American parody—a song written in support of the United States' second President John Adams and known as "Adams and Liberty." So for Key the song might well have been singularly American. It's also feasible that he knew the original English tune as his family was of British descent.

This original song was the constitutional anthem of the Anacreontic Society, an all-male music club based in London and founded in 1766. Undoubtedly club members drank alcohol at meetings and indeed this lyric toasts the club's future, but the song's purpose is distinctly different as it conveys the club's value of sociality through music. The song uses the choral refrain, fast tempo, jaunty affect, and melodic leaps common to the drinking song genre to celebrate the joys of making music, but it is too musically sophisticated for a typical pub ditty. Accompanied by harpsichord and with a chorus sung in four-part harmony, it required substantial vocal skill to perform. It is also rather long. These characteristics are not part of the drinking song genre.

The song was written to be performed in a ballroom rather than a pub. Anacreontic Society meetings were elite affairs beginning with a two-hour symphony concert held in an elegant meeting room followed by dinner. The club's anthem was sung after dinner at each meeting to introduce a set of popular part songs. Professional singers, who also performed in London's theaters, sang along with select, trained amateurs while general members joined to echo as a chorus. As a challenging song written to showcase the artistic aspirations of the club, "The Anacreontic Song" would typically have been sung by a featured professional. Its rather athletic melody was thus never intended for mass singing—Key himself would be surprised by how his song is performed today!

Myth #5: A 1931 act of Congress made "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official anthem of the United States.
Correction: This is correct in terms of the anthem's legal status, but the bill approved by the House and Senate and signed by President Herbert Hoover simply recognized what had been true in American cultural practice for decades.

Citizens treated "The Star-Spangled Banner" as America's anthem long before it was officially so. Early in the nineteenth century the song "Hail, Columbia" (1798) served as the de facto anthem of the United States, yet as Key's song grew in popularity it gradually usurped the honor. With its lyrical repetition of the phrase "star-spangled banner," Key's song became synonymous with the flag through the 1820s and 1830s, and a series of wars—the Mexican-American War (1846–48), Civil War (1861–65), and Spanish-American War (1898)—sanctified flag and song. By the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, "The Star-Spangled Banner" had even become the official "national anthem" for the U.S. military. Citizens in performance made Key's song into America's own well before a federal proclamation made it official.

Myth #6: There is an original, traditional, or otherwise official version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Correction: The 1931 act making Key's song America's anthem does not specify an official arrangement, in part because the song as sung in the twentieth century had already departed significantly from what Francis Scott Key had known. During World War I, an attempt was made to codify the arrangement, resulting in both a military "Service Version" and a "Standardized Version" endorsed by the Department of Education. That there were two competing sanctioned arrangements prevented one from dominance and, indeed, today it seems no two performances of the anthem are ever the same.

Throughout much of the 19th century, "The Star-Spangled Banner" would have been performed as a solo song with a choral refrain repeating the final couplet. The song's melodic contour was smoother (lacking the opening triadic descent) and some of the dotted rhythms common today were also missing. The original tempo marking was an upbeat and celebratory "con spirito," with a slower hymn-like maestoso only becoming typical after World War II. Group singing of the song also was not common originally, such that the first published SATB arrangement appeared only in 1914.

While some state laws have attempted to legislate appropriate performance style and demeanor, no single official standard exists. A 1942 "Code for the National Anthem of the United States of America" recommends the military's Service Version in A-flat as the most suitable arrangement and suggests a tempo of 104 beats per minute with the final two lines slowing to 96 beats per minute. It also demands that respect be demonstrated in performance—in careful preparation, for example, and by standing and facing the flag during singing. This code has never been adopted by the U.S. government, but its tenets have become traditional.

Musical arrangements can vary substantially. In some of the most celebrated interpretations—such as Whitney Houston's 1991 Super Bowl rendition—the meter has been shifted from 3/4 to 4/4. From a musician's perspective, this change from triple to duple time dramatically transforms the music's affect, but the resulting hymn-like expansion of each downbeat into a half note gives many listeners a feeling of reverence they find appropriate. This interpretive flexibility is in keeping with American values of liberty and individualism, not to mention the First Amendment.

What I've learned from a decade of research into Key's anthem, and especially from the Poets & Patriots recording project that explored the roots and variants of the song in 37 tracks, is that "The Star-Spangled Banner" must be performed with the intent to create art, not just repeated as cliché. The song both captures a moment in history and speaks to a need for active and generous citizenship today; the past is a guide to the present.


Mark Clague is an associate professor of musicology and American culture at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where he serves as director of research, co-director of the American Music Institute, and editor-in-chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition. His most recent publication is the two-disc recording Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and he is collaborating with baritone Thomas Hampson on a July 3 celebration of the anthem's history at the Library of Congress. More of his research can be found at starspangledmusic.org.

This article was adapted from The Voice, Summer 2014. Web image: The original 1814 Carr imprint of the sheet music for "The Star-Spangled Banner." Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

Listen to versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as well as the original “Anacreontic Song” on YouTube.

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