The tune we all knowMar 03, 2020 11:51AM ● By Randal C. Hill
Do you recognize this song?
To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee
A few sons of harmony sent a petition
That he their inspirer and patron would be
When his answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian
Voice, fiddle and flute
No longer be mute
Doesn’t ring a bell? The words to this old British drinking tune from 1775 may not be familiar, but “To Anacreon in Heaven” features a melody you have heard—and sung—countless times.
Francis Scott Key was a Washington, DC lawyer—and an amateur poet. During the War of 1812, Key was dispatched to Baltimore by President James Madison to negotiate for the release of a prominent surgeon, Dr. William Beanes. He had been captured and was being held aboard a British ship as a civilian prisoner of war.
Key boarded an English vessel under a flag of truce in the Chesapeake Bay on September 7, 1814. He secured Beanes’ release but was then detained on a British ship while the English proceeded to attack nearby Fort McHenry.
Beginning at 6 a.m., British warships fired rockets and mortars at the fort for 25 continuous hours, while over 1,000 American soldiers inside responded with cannon fire. Even Philadelphia residents 100 miles away heard the explosions. Due to a lack of accuracy with the weaponry on both sides, little actual damage was done, although four Americans inside the fort perished. When the British ran out of ammunition, they hauled up their ships’ anchors and sailed out to sea.
As dawn brought light to the smoke-filled sky, Key saw that Fort McHenry’s 15-star flag still defiantly waved. Key, overcome with relief and emotion, began writing a poem of praise—“The Defense of Fort McHenry”—on the back of an envelope he had in his pocket. The lyrics that flowed from his pen became a testament to American resolve, endurance and the willingness to persevere against overwhelming odds.
Baltimore newspapers quickly printed his verses, and soon after, his brother-in-law set the words to the melody of a group singalong called “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a rousing number popular in pubs throughout Baltimore at the time. That November, a local music store printed Key’s words for the first time under a more lyrical title: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
By the time the war ended a few months later, Key’s soul-stirring song had become ingrained into America’s popular culture.
On March 3, 1931, president Herbert Hoover signed a law making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official U.S. national anthem. While the tune has played a large role in molding the modern image of America, only its first verse is usually sung, while the other three remain unknown to most people. All four verses conclude with the same line: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
On March 3, we’ll again honor National Anthem Day, as we have every year for nearly 90 years.