8 Things You Don’t Know about “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Every American schoolkid knows the story of how and why Francis Scott Key wrote what would become ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ But here are eight things about the national anthem they don’t often teach in school.

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How and why Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that would eventually become our national anthem is a well-known American legend. What is less known is that the journey from poem to anthem was long — more than a century — and fraught with controversy. Here are eight things that might surprise you about “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its divisive history:

1. Francis Scott Key did not compose “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

On a list of the country’s greatest composers, you’ll find familiar names like Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin. Francis Scott Key will not — and should not — appear on that list. He was a lawyer and an amateur poet who, on September 14, 1814, wrote a poem called “The Defence of Fort M’Henry” while aboard a British ship during the night-long bombardment of Fort McHenry, Baltimore. Though you might say he “composed” the poem in a broad sense, he was not what is considered “a composer.” Some historians even believe he was tone deaf.

2. The tune for the national anthem is a British song about sex and drinking.

The Anacreontic Society was a gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians founded in 18th-century London and named for Anacreon, a 6th century B.C. Greek poet. Sometime in the late 1760s or early 1770s, John Stafford Smith wrote music to accompany words written by Society President Ralph Tomlinson. The result was “The Anacreontic Song,” or “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and its lyrics were no staid bastion of propriety. It ends like this (starting where “And the rockets’ red glare” is sung in the national anthem):

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 entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

Venus is the Greek goddess of love and sex, and Bacchus the god of wine. This last line is an invitation to get drunk and naughty.

Stafford’s tune was often appropriated for patriotic songs, and Francis Scott Key would have been familiar with it. It’s likely he intentionally fit the words of his “Defence of Fort M’Henry” to the tune of “The Anacreontic Song.” It quickly became the standard tune to which Key’s poem was sung, and it is now the national anthem of the United States.

3. The first word of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not “Oh.”

Used almost exclusively in verse, the real first word of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — O — is, according to linguist Arika Okrent, a vocative O. “It indicates that someone or something is being directly addressed,” she writes, comparing it to a number of other well-known Os, including “O captain, my captain,” “O ye of little faith,” and “O Christmas tree.”

Oh has a wider range,” she continues. “It can indicate pain, surprise, disappointment, or really any emotional state.”

And yes, it appears again in the penultimate line of the anthem: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave …”

4. Many people opposed “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem.

It seems there were many reasons to dislike “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Music teachers and professional vocalists complained that the range of the song made it difficult to sing and to teach. Pacifists believed it was too violent in tone, a glorification of war. Nationalists didn’t like that the tune was of British origin. And Prohibitionists protested that our national anthem shouldn’t be what is essentially a drinking song. Other songs that were considered anthem-worthy were “America the Beautiful,” “Hail Columbia” (now the ceremonial march for the vice president), and even “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

5. The original poem had four verses and specifically mentioned slavery.

Thankfully, we don’t sing all four verses of Key’s original poem. Not only would that stretch the pregame anthem to more than six minutes, but the third verse would be a constant source of controversy. It contains the lines

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave

The original manuscript by Francis Scott Key
Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript has survived and is on display at the Maryland Historical Society. (Public Domain)

During the War of 1812, hirelings were black slaves hired to fight for the British military on the promise of freedom should they survive the war. Slaves and hirelings are the only people singled out for death or defeat in the poem.

Francis Scott Key, a slaveholder himself, certainly didn’t extend his vision of “the land of the free and the home of the brave” to people of color. As Jefferson Morley reports in his book about the race riots of 1835, Snow-Storm in August, Key was known to have publicly spoken about African Americans as “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”

6. A fifth verse appeared 47 years later.

In 1861, as the Civil War was spreading across the young country, American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (father of the future Supreme Court justice) penned a fifth verse that spread widely in the north but eventually faded from the public consciousness. It, too, mentions slavery, but welcomes the “millions unchain’d” to “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

When our land is illum’d with Liberty’s smile,

If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,

Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile

The flag of her stars and the page of her story!

By the millions unchain’d who our birthright have gained

We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!

And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave

While the land of the free is the home of the brave.

According to the Library of Congress, the significance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not lost on the Confederacy during the Civil War: Songs with names like “Farewell to the Star-Spangled Banner” and “Adieu to the Star-Spangled Banner Forever” — clearly a reference to Key’s song — were published and sung all around the South.

7. The U.S. had no official national anthem during World War I or the first eight Summer Olympic Games.

Article clipping
This Post editorial from May 1898 urges the creation of a stirring national anthem but dismisses “The Star-Spangled Banner” right off.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” found its first official use in 1889, when Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy directed that it be the official tune to accompany the raising of the flag by the Navy. In 1916, the year before the U.S. entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order stating that “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be played whenever the performance of a national anthem was appropriate.

Not until 1930 did a congressional bill to establish a national anthem find any traction. In that year, Maryland Representative John Linthicum (D) introduced a bill to make “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem. President Herbert Hoover signed it into law on March 3, 1931, almost 117 years after the poem was first penned. March 3 is still celebrated as National Anthem Day in the U.S.

8. There’s still plenty of opposition to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In July of 1976 — shortly after Independence Day in America’s bicentennial year — Texas Representative James Collins (R) introduced a bill to the House of Representatives to change the national anthem to “God Bless America.” Indiana Representative Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D) introduced not one but six separate bills to change the national anthem, one bill for each term he served between 1985 and 1996. His choice for anthem was “America the Beautiful” because not only is it easier to sing, but it also is more representative — the music was written by Samuel Augustus Ward and the words by Katharine Lee Bates, a man and a woman, both Americans.

More recently, Senator Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa took up the cause. At the end of 2014, he introduced a bill to the Senate to replace the national anthem, again with “America the Beautiful” because it “far better represents the scope and majesty of the geography of the United States of America as well as the principles of freedom, liberty, fraternity, and progress that are the unifying beliefs of our democracy.”

In each case, the bill was referred to a committee and never heard from again.

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Comments

  1. And you know when Ayambdusalaam (sorry if I got your name spelling wrong) says we should fix inequality and stop asking questions it’s BLM or Black Panthers or other African American instituttions who have invented racism or inequality. The inconvenient truth is that white people were tainted by the uglinees of racism in this country (and, to some extent Great Britain and France.). Since slaveryvastly disrespected black people and spread the lie of an inferior race without evidence, not bothering to find out about the advanced civilizations in Africa in thepast, since they broke up their families and in everyimparted a disrespect of their peoplehood and origins, and instituted a society replete with systemic racism designed to never let them get ahead, it’s a little to stop asking questions? Because many people of all races wanted to level the playing field for people historically ground under the heel of the iniquity first, of kidnapping, death, separation from family, slave labor , cruelty of slavery and then under the abominable Jim Crow. And it’s still going on. We find out not just George Floyd was asphixiated, but another black was also smother and with a hood over his face. Talk about images of slavery. Not too long ago the FBI did a report on how prevalent it is for white nationalists to join police forces. So you see it is very difficult to combat thatkind of crueltyand asking questions of your race, gender, etc. tofind out how best to support peope under-represented in Congress – there’s nothing wrong unless it’ starts being used as a weapon. So rather then say we should abolish such questions perhaps we should say we should address the racism in this country honestly and strive for racial justice and vow tomake this a more perfect union…..for everyone. And I meant of course BLM etc. are not responsible for racism; I also meant it’s a little late to ask questions. The racism is embedded deep. My keyboard skips words unfortunately

  2. And you know when Ayambdusalaam (sorry if I got your name spelling wrong) says we should fix inequality and stop asking questions it’s BLM or Black Panthers or other African American instituttions who have invented racism or inequality. The inconvenient truth is that white people were tainted by the uglinees of racism in this country (and, to some extent Great Britain and France.). Since slaveryvastly disrespected black people and spread the lie of an inferior race without evidence, not bothering to find out about the advanced civilizations in Africa in thepast, since they broke up their families and in everyimparted a disrespect of their peoplehood and origins, and instituted a society replete with systemic racism designed to never let them get ahead, it’s a little to stop asking questions? Because many people of all races wanted to level the playing field for people historically ground under the heel of the iniquity first, of kidnapping, death, separation from family, slave labor , cruelty of slavery and then under the abominable Jim Crow. And it’s still going on. We find out not just George Floyd was asphixiated, but another black was also smother and with a hood over his face. Talk about images of slavery. Not too long ago the FBI did a report on how prevalent it is for white nationalists to join police forces. So you see it is very difficult to combat thatkind of crueltyand asking questions of your race, gender, etc. tofind out how best to support peope under-represented in Congress – there’s nothing wrong unless it’ starts being used as a weapon. So rather then say we should abolish such questions perhaps we should say we should address the racism in this country honestly and strive for racial justice and vow tomake this a more perfect union…..for everyone.

  3. Not only is the Star-Spangled Banner a difficult song to sing, it is,as mentioned pretty warlike and there’s definitely the references to getting back our slaves from the British. I kind of think that was Key’s game.
    It’s inreresting that many facets of American life and politics had to do with slavery. Let’s face it, it was the driving forceunderlying the American economy from thegate.
    You have this anthem that at least originally mentioned slavery; you have the Second Amendment and there’s some evidence that it was not about arming againgst tyrannical, or at least not only for the reason but to allow every white man to take up arms in slave patrols hunting down runaway slaves and to massacre Indians, who often had a bounty that would be paid for each Indian killed. I’m usibg Indian as terminologybecause that’s what whites called them now. Every white man in the South was expected to be part of a well-regulated militia and re-capture slaves.
    Another American institution, the ElectoralCollege, appears to have been introduced byJames Madison to count slaves although they couldn’t vote so slave-owning states would have more clout, as those states were more sparsely settled by whites.

    It’s no surprise that so many things were tainted by slavery: attitudes, practices,the economy, homeownership, schools and a host of other institutions which cruelly reinforced the notion that black Americans were an inferior race and not worthy of equal treatment or rights.

    Everything from police killing unarmed blacks 5 times more than whites (a holdover from slave patrols) to refusing mortgages to black people, inferior schools, the whole indignity i of Jim Crow and lynchings, that became endemic after the slaves were freed, were designed to keep them in their place as inferiors.
    .
    Even Confederate statues honoring Confederate Generals and soldiers were,for the most part, not erected right after the war but when the racists wers-that-be were entrenched in “keeping the nigrahs down” by reminding them through those monuments that while the Confederacy lost the war, black Americans were still going to get the bum rush because of the deep-down hatred and prejudice of white to black (and please don’t tell me happy Mammy stories and shit like that). No one who’s a slave can be genuinely haapy and besides that the slave-owners and their families visited egregious indignities on black Americans.

    Of course many would not rent or sell to them and redlining became a real thing ALL over the United States. I recently read something that astounded me. That Oregon was the only state that actually banned black peoplefrom living there.

    And since black Americans were pushed out of good jobs and good housing, they didn’t have a well-to-do tax base for the most in order for them to have good schools and education.

    I’m very admiring of how many black Americans back pulled themselves up in spite of all the odds, conditions that wouldhave killed the mostly pampered slave owners.

    And even now. Sen. Cotton is from a Southern state and he doesn’t want the 1619 Project taught in schools. He would rather shove the legacy of our countryunder the rug. But white people as a whole have never shone a light and addressed the burden we created because of slavery and the genocide of Native-Americans (as well as Chinese, Japanese and others. The white race carries this karma even you’re not the descendents of slave-owners and other cruel racists. We still have to deal with the ugly residue of systemic racism in our society, the white nationalists hired by police forces and a white man putting a knee on a black man’s neck as if he was bagged game. And thatman calling the cop “sir” and showing somuch dignity compared to Chauvin it breaks your heart to hear him call for his deceased motherand cry out “I can’t breathe!” because he knew he was going to die.

    I wish it was as simple as what that one gentleman above commented. We should just forget about race, look at everyone as grey and treat people accordingly. But that’s naive because it’s not taking into consideration all the hurt already visited on black Americans and the deep wounds they bear. No white mother had to receive her son’s ruined and disfigured body, a boy killed because awhitewoman lied and accused her of whistling at her. Emmett Till’s mother displayed his wounds to the world in an open coffin and bared her grieving to the shock of the planet, who could scarcely believe we were such savages. And it wasn’t only in the South, it was in California too and other states and embraced Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, South Asians and religions too: at various times Catholisism, and certainly Musliks, as if ournation is only to be for white evangelistic protestants. Ignoring what John Adams said, “The United States of America is not, in any sense, a Christian nation”.

    And that’s what the United States is all about and we won’t have a perfect union until all religions, or atheism, and all races, and ethnicities are embraced united into a harmonious union. It can haapen. Peoplecan get to know people very different from themselves. We are the world’s melting pot. And that used to be our pride until political elements tried to separate us

    President Trump doesn’t want the 1619 project in schools. He doesn’t want us to talk about slavery, or Jim Crow. Because he himself is a racist and has been in his past when he and his Dad were charged by the DOJ TWICE for discriminating against black Americans in their housing projects. He tried to advocate the death penalty for the young men of color even after they were found innocent (the real suspect was found and the police were discovered to have coerced these very young men into guilty pleas for raping a white woman in Central Park. Trump was so helk-bent on having these young black men executed he took out a full-page ad in the NY Times.
    .
    He and his Dad were creative with their racism and he still isv. He tries to create plausible deniality as when he weeps and moans about the poor suburban housewives who might have to put up with terrible people if Democrats bring low-,income housing. Like a white man or politician From the 50’s projecting an image of white June Cleaver in pearls and high heels and in his coded way, his dog whistle, race-baiting way, whispering “you don’t want those blacks in your neighborhood. “. Only hardly a whisper. More like a bullhorn. Only most suburbs are pretty mixed these days and there are plenty of low-income whites, even some of his supporters, who want and need low-income housing. Ironically.
    Donald Trump and his Dad used to have a system encouraging their rental agents to put a C on an application if the applicant or applicants were black (C for “colored” I presume)
    That’s what I’m saying. He’s very creative with his racism, like pushing the birther theory that Obama was born in Africa, not Hawaii, and that was a Muslim. A sly, evil way of painting Obama as the “other”, the foreigner”, the outcast religion or race. When everyone knew except for lunatic conspiracy theorists that he was born in Hawaii and he’s a Christian. I mean, like I’m sure all people who put his birth announcement in the Hawaiin newspaper thought “oh, this baby might run for president one day, we better manufacture the birth announcements as being in Hawaii. Or like when rightwing geniuses posted a University I.D. under his name that said foreign student. What they failed to find out is that Columbia University didn’t have digital I.D.’s when he was going to college. Whoops! You see they end up being very stupid.

    I’m writing this about racism and unfairness, bigotry against either Jews or Muslims, against zenophobia and the many people from other ethnic backgrounds who have made this country a rich and prosperous country.

    Someone said why don’t we take down statues of George Washington and Jefferson, they had slaves and Jefferson even had a slave who he basically raped if you consider the proper definition as combing sex and abiuse of power. And she had a child and there is a whole branch of the Jefferson family descended from her. I believe that most of the white Jeffersons did not acknowledge her at first, and if I’m not mistaken, eventually embraced that section of the family into their fold

    It’s hard to see those glaring faults of our Founding Fathers. They had such high ideals that did not extend to black Americans (or Indians, etc. Etc. It was meant for white people, this pursuit of happiness and freedom The only reason I think not to tear down their statues is that they did draw up a master plan of an ideal country of laws that we must struggle to meet as our lodestone of a perfect nation. And later, another somewhat imperfect heralder of freedom was Abraham Lincoln and finally the end of slavery.
    As was Lyndon Johnson a racist Southerner who saw the need for equalizing injustice and passed the Civil Rights Law and Voting Rights Law, and I believe, the Fair Housing Act. The Republican Lincoln and the Democrat Johnson who presided over a failed war. So this was the most consequential thing he ever did.

    Unfortunately, it could not ve said that the Confederates had a noble and redeeming cause. The Civil War on the South end of the equation, was a dearly-fought battle to keep irredeemable and vicious institution of slavery. The man who dssigned the Confederate flag said so and furthermore set in stone his definition of the black race as an inferior race.

    We the entire American nation need to think of the people in a holistic way, embracing our brothers and sisters of all races, ethnicities, religions and non-religion, gender identification, sexual orientation,you name. If you’re white you don’t have to feel guilty even if your ancestors were, through no fault of yours, involved in those past events. But just realize this karmic stain will hurt white people too and to transform, we need to study about it, acknowledge without guilt and find a new undwrstanding and empathy for other people.. We can transform this natiin into what the Founding Fathers envisioned, without, of course the incipient racism. The best thing to do is to broaden your horizons, dialog with people very different from yourself. You will aslso overcome the fear you might feel walking down the street on meeting a person of color, or of a different religion (say, Muslim) or someone from another country, maybe with a heavy accent or different language (many white families have relatives or ancestors who couldn’t speak English for a long time, if ever )

    So, you see I’m not just writing about racism but any kind of prejudice, against disabled people, as well.

    My last two room-mates were a Mexican-American woman who had a hard life with a family who labored in the fields and became a lawyer and devotes her legal expertise to helping homeless people navigate the court system

    My other room-mate was a transgender woman; except for her voice you wouldn’t know she was a man. I endeavored to learn about her life and issues and best I could, and to make her feel welcome.

    This is what brings world peace: sharing the love

    Sorry if this is long – it’s my personal essay of race and related subjects of inequality, injustice and unreasoning hate.

    Also, I meant I used the label Indian as how whites spoke in the past, that is, when they were being polite. In California, while blacks had to be freed as soon as they came with their slave masters of the past, at least eventually after the Civil War, Indians, in tje 1800’s had a bounty on their head. Each Indian killed was worth so much to a white man (and when Mexico ruled California there were also massacres and slave labor. A big massacre perpetrated by the American Army was not even known until recently. In the hills above the Sonoma all Native Americans rounded up for miles hundreds of them, men, women and children, were slaughtered. A white schoolteacher trying to protect her young Indian students,begging Col. Stephenson I think it was, to spare them and he not only did not, but shot her too. The white townspeople thought she was a traitor and she was buried outside the cemetery in an unmarked. Later in more enlightened times, the townspeople erected a big white cross on the hillside. I believe this massacre was not even recorded in books or online until the 1990’s.
    And the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 20th century forbade Chinese from associating outside of work with whites so for some time they lived in tunnels underground. There’still a 17-mile tunnel under the town of Sonma in which a young white boy was lost and never found in 1930.

    If you had the patience to read this, thank you.

    For all the reasons above, I prefer This Land is your Land or second, America the Beautiful

  4. Well, funny how you all saying stuff about slaves but as far as my books has taught me and researching it and years and years of knowing now, the very first person that owned a slave was a colored man mainly the world likes to call these people African American or blacks. His name is Anthony Johnson. He was a farmer. Of course who wasn’t back then. They needed to eat right? Look also at marriages. It is just a legitimate legalized form of prositution. I really do wish people would just understand that if they could see each and every person as gray instead of color then race would at lest not be a problem. You have school and the Goverment all over in USA with forms and even applications for work that ask you what race, age, sex, all those types of questions. I mean Technicly, a white person is not white, they are peachy color. Blacks are not black. Everyone has hints and tones that changes the colors of the outcome of them. If they demolished those types of questions that would be a great start to have everyone coming together as a “One Nation” Yes, I am doing this here but, “Can we not just all get along?”

  5. Let’s knock down the Washington monument and take his picture off the one dollar bill because George Washington on slaves. Let’s tear down the Jefferson Memorial and no longer print the two dollar bill because Jefferson not only owned slaves but possibly father children with one name Sally. The point is you can’t judge things that happened in the 18th and 19th centuries based on 21st century morals. It’s called “presentism” …look it up

  6. The USA is a young and confused populous.There almost seems to be no period of consensus whether at war or peace.The confusion will over the years abate when the people have decided that fixing issues like race require the seeking of justice.Not a race based solution.
    Freedom ain’t enough!

  7. Land of the free while having slaves. < That right there is how humans think and will continue to think for a very long time. Human logic is something else, would probably need to be separated from the word logic. It should probably be a compound word at this point. It should claim humans being delusional. I see it way too often than I should.

  8. Honestly Andy, I really have to wonder how many American schoolkids today know the background story of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, or frankly are even taught it anymore at all.

    Although I did/do know the basic story, THESE facts I did not know, such as Key not being the composer! Aside from the sex and booze element, the fact the song otherwise was from the country we had recently become independent from is more than ironic.

    I never knew about the “Oh” either. (In my state the first line is sung as “Oh Jose can you see?”) It’s shameful and terrible Key was not only a slave owner, but made such cruel and ignorant remarks about African Americans on top of that. It’s shocking and not shocking at the same time, unfortunately.

    “God Bless America” (we really need it) might be my preference for the national anthem, but then would be a whopper of a controversial ordeal given the above revelation in today’s very divided U.S. No, it’s probably best to just leave it alone.

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