“The Star-Spangled Banner" is the national anthem of the United States, with lyrics written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key. Key, a 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet, wrote them as a poem after seeing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, by British ships in Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812.
The poem, titled "Defense of Fort McHenry," was set to the tune of the popular British drinking song "The Anacreontic Song", more commonly known by its first line, "To Anacreon in Heaven," and became a well-known American patriotic song. With a range of one and a half octaves, it is known for being difficult to sing. It 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 3 March 1931 (46 Stat. 1508, codified at 36 USC §301). 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.
On September 3, 1814, Key and John S. Skinner, an American prisoner-exchange agent, set sail from Baltimore aboard the sloop HMS Minden flying a flag of truce on a mission approved by U.S. President James Madison. Their objective was to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, the elderly and popular town physician of Upper Marlboro, a friend of Key’s who had been captured in his home. Beanes was accused of aiding in the arrest of British soldiers. Key and Skinner boarded the British flagship, HMS Tonnant, on 7 September and spoke with Major General Robert Ross and 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 HMS Minden. After the bombardment, certain British gunboats attempted to slip past the fort and affect 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 shelling 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.
15-star, 15-stripe "Star-Spangled Banner" flag
Francis Scott Key's original manuscript copy of his Star-Spangled Banner poem. It is now on display at the Maryland Historical Society.
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 finished the poem at the Indian Queen Hotel, where he was staying, and he entitled it "Defense of Fort McHenry."
Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson. Nicholson saw that the words fit the popular melody "To Anacreon in Heaven", an old British drinking song from the mid-1760s, composed in London by John Stafford Smith. Nicholson took the poem to a printer in Baltimore, who anonymously printed broadside copies of itthe song’s first known printingon 17 September; of these, two known copies survive.
On 20 September, 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 "Defense 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.
The song gained popularity throughout the nineteenth century and bands played it during public events, such as July 4 celebrations. On 27 July 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. Today, the anthem is performed before the beginning of all NBA, NHL,MLB and NFL games.
On 3 November 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 3 March 1931 by President Herbert Hoover, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was adopted as the national anthem of the United States.
The first modern non-traditional arrangement of the anthem heard by mainstream America was by Puerto Rican singer and guitarist Jose Feliciano. He stunned the crowd at Tiger Stadium in Detroit and the rest of America when he strummed a slow, bluesy rendition of the national anthem before Game 5 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" we hear today. In fact, many "interpretative" versions of the anthem are held in high regard by modern critics, such as Marvin Gaye's funk-influenced performance at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and Whitney Houston's stirring, high-note filled rendition before Super Bowl XXV in 1991, which when released as a single 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 guitar solo at the first Woodstock Festival. Incorporating sonic effects to emphasize the "rockets' red glare" and "bombs bursting in air", it became a late-1960s emblem.
In March 2005, the government-sponsored The National Anthem Project was launched after a Harris Interactive poll showed many adults knew neither the lyrics nor the history of the anthem.
When the song is performed in public, it is customary for American citizens to stand and face the American flag, if one is displayed, in an attitude of respectful attention. If no flag is on display, it is customary to stand and face the source of the music in the same respectful attitude of attention as if the flag were on display. Men and boys are also encouraged to remove their hats during the performance. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, military personnel, fire service, and law enforcement officers in uniform normally salute during the national anthem from the first note and hold the salute until the last note is played. Civilians who are citizens of the United States should salute by placing their right hand over their heart.
Crowd performing the US national anthem before a baseball game in Coors Field.
Main article: Performances and adaptations of The Star-Spangled Banner
The song is notoriously difficult for nonprofessionals to sing, because its range is wide: an octave and a half. Garrison Keillor has frequently campaigned for the performance of the anthem in the original key, G major—which can, in fact, be managed by most average singers without difficulty (it is usually played in A-flat or B-flat). Humorist Richard Armour referred to the song's difficulty in his book It All Started With Columbus.
"In an attempt to take Baltimore, the British attacked Fort McHenry, which protected the harbor. Bombs were soon bursting in air, rockets were glaring, and all in all it was a moment of great historical interest. During the bombardment, a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner", and when, by the dawn's early light, the British heard it sung, they fled in terror!"
—Richard Armour, It All Started With Columbus
Professional and amateur singers have been known to forget the words, which is one reason the song is so often prerecorded and lip-synced. Other times the issue is avoided by having the performer(s) play the anthem instrumentally instead of singing it. This situation was lampooned in the comedy film The Naked Gun, as its star Leslie Nielsen, undercover as opera singer Enrico Pallazzo at a baseball game, made mincemeat of the lyrics. The prerecording of the anthem has become standard practice at some ballparks (such as Boston's Fenway Park, according to the SABR publication The Fenway Project).
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