American Values: Our Anthem … a Drinking Song? FROM an 1814 copy of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Note the melody is identified as “Anacreon in Heaven.” This was the first printed edition to combine the words and sheet music. Copies such as these were sold from a catalog of Thomas Carr’s Carr Music Store in Baltimore. Currently this is one of only ten copies known to exist, and is housed in the Library of Congress.

America’s national anthem—“The Star-Spangled Banner”—is partner to the flag itself.

Yesterday, on Flag Day, we explored the meaning of our flag. Today, let’s discuss our song. Hearing or singing the anthem often stirs emotion, just as the sight of Old Glory does. Every schoolchild learns that Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics when he witnessed the British shelling of Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812. But every schoolchild doesn’t learn the checkered pedigree of this patriotic piece.

The Star-Spangled Banner wasn’t the official national anthem until 1931. Earlier anthems were “Hail, Columbia” (now used when the vice president makes an official entrance) and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” (You can read more about the history of our anthem at Wikipedia.)

Key called his poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” which, one must admit, is not too catchy. What really made it catch on was when Key’s brother in law saw that the lyrics fit a popular British drinking song. This was the theme song of a London gentlemen’s club, called the Anacreontic Society. According to Wikipedia, this was “a popular gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London founded in the mid-1700s. These barristers, doctors, and other professional men named their club after the Greek court poet Anacreon, who lived in the 6th century B.C. and whose poems, ‘anacreontics,’ were used to entertain patrons in Teos and Athens. Dubbed ‘the convivial bard of Greece,’ Anacreon’s songs often celebrated women, wine, and entertaining.”

You can read the lyrics of The Anacreontic Song here. This drinking song was popular in early America. The idea was that if you could sing this difficult song, you were sober enough to be served another round! Of course, the origin of the tune is mostly forgotten, and the national anthem stands as probably the most patriotic song in America.

What does “The Star-Spangled Banner” stir in you when you hear it—or sing it?

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