The National Anthem Was Set to the Tune of a British Drinking Song

Direct your frustration in hitting the high notes across the pond.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
See more stories about...
Brian Resnick
May 14, 2014, 11:09 a.m.

Even be­fore Con­gress de­clared “The Star-Spangled Ban­ner” the of­fi­cial an­them of the United States in 1931, its com­plic­ated melody and soar­ing pitches were con­tro­ver­sial.

The com­pos­i­tion, ar­gued the Mu­sic Su­per­visors Na­tion­al Con­fer­ence in 1930 (now the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation for Mu­sic Edu­ca­tion), “was too dif­fi­cult a mu­sic­al com­pos­i­tion to be rendered prop­erly by school­chil­dren, in­form­al gath­er­ings and pub­lic meet­ings where the singing of the na­tion­al an­them [is] ap­pro­pri­ate,” ac­cord­ing to a 1930 New York Times art­icle.

Al­though Fran­cis Scott Key penned the words in 1814 dur­ing the War of 1812, the melody is ac­tu­ally much older. It’s based off an 18th-cen­tury Brit­ish pub song called “To Anacreon in Heav­en.” That’s right: a song to be sung whilst drunk. Listen here (au­dio, and in­spir­a­tion for this post, via the Na­tion­al Mu­seum of Amer­ic­an His­tory).

The song had been the de facto an­them since Pres­id­ent Wilson ordered it played at mil­it­ary events. But many were not happy with merely co­di­fy­ing what had be­come com­pla­cency. A 1927 New York Times ed­it­or­i­al, “Wanted, A Na­tion­al An­them,” voiced the com­mon con­cerns. (Find more his­tor­ic­al Times shade-throw­ing here.)

Both the words and the tune of that song are ad­mit­tedly un­suit­able for the pur­pose of a na­tion­al an­them; and their ac­cept­ance is a strange in­stance of the hit-or-miss fash­ion in which a na­tion­al an­them is some­times made. The verses by Fran­cis Scott Key de­scribe a com­par­at­ively un­im­port­ant in­cid­ent of the War of 1812.

It then goes on to ex­plain why “To Anacreon in Heav­en” is an un­suit­able melody:

It is too elab­or­ate in struc­ture for a pop­u­lar an­them, and is like­wise of such a wide com­pass as to be singable by a mixed as­sembly only with some dif­fi­culty.

The Times pre­ferred a song that could be more eas­ily sung in “a fit of en­thu­si­asm” — al­though, if a drink­ing song isn’t meant to be sung in fits of en­thu­si­asm, what is?

Many pat­ri­ot­ic songs in the Amer­ic­an playl­ist have ori­gins in re­cycled tunes. “The Battle Hymn of the Re­pub­lic” has its melod­ic roots in a folk song, “John Brown’s Body.” “My Coun­try Tis of Thee” is a dir­ect rip of “God Save the Queen,” the Brit­ish na­tion­al an­them. This his­tor­ic­al re­mix­ing un­der­scores a sense of Amer­ica as a melt­ing pot, that old ideas turn new (al­though some­times that ap­pro­pri­ation is for the worse).

“The Star-Spangled Ban­ner” may be tough to sing, but when it’s sung cor­rectly, it makes for a tran­scend­ent, power­ful mo­ment.

What We're Following See More »
‘LOTS OF MEETINGS’
Hill Dems Mull Dropping Wasserman Schultz
10 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

Concerned that she's become too divisive, "Democrats on Capitol Hill are discussing whether Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz should step down as Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairwoman before the party’s national convention in July. ... Wasserman Schultz has had an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the party’s other presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, and his supporters, who argue she has tilted the scales in Clinton’s favor." The money quote, from a Democratic senator who backs Clinton: “There have been a lot of meetings over the past 48 hours about what color plate do we deliver Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s head on." Meanwhile, Newsweek takes a look at why no one seems to like Wasserman Schultz.

Source:
PRESIDENT PLEDGES VETO
House Votes Today on Bill to Strip Budget Autonomy from DC
10 minutes ago
THE LATEST

"The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote Wednesday on a Republican bill that would block the District of Columbia from spending locally raised tax revenue without congressional approval, prompting President Obama to pledge to veto it. In issuing the veto threat on Tuesday, the Obama White House made one of the strongest statements to date in support of the District’s attempt to win financial independence from Congress."

Source:
HE ‘WILL NEVER BE PRESIDENT’
Warren Goes After Trump Yet Again
11 hours ago
THE LATEST

When it comes to name-calling among America's upper echelon of politicians, there may be perhaps no greater spat than the one currently going on between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump. While receiving an award Tuesday night, she continued a months-long feud with the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Calling him a "small, insecure moneygrubber" who probably doesn't know three things about Dodd-Frank, she said he "will NEVER be president of the United States," according to her prepared remarks."We don't know what Trump pays in taxes because he is the first presidential nominee in 40 years to refuse to disclose his tax returns. Maybe he’s just a lousy businessman who doesn’t want you to find out that he’s worth a lot less money than he claims." It follows a long-line of Warren attacks over Twitter, Facebook and in interviews that Trump is a sexist, racist, narcissistic loser. In reply, Trump has called Warren either "goofy" or "the Indian"—referring to her controversial assertion of her Native American heritage. 

LEVERAGE
Kasich Tells His Delegates to Remain Pledged to Him
16 hours ago
THE LATEST

Citing the unpredictable nature of this primary season and the possible leverage they could bring at the convention, John Kasich is hanging onto his 161 delegates. "Kasich sent personal letters Monday to Republican officials in the 16 states and the District of Columbia where he won delegates, requesting that they stay bound to him in accordance with party rules."

Source:
LOST BY HALF A PERCENTAGE POINT
Sanders Wants a Recount in Kentucky
17 hours ago
THE LATEST

Bernie Sanders "signed a letter Tuesday morning requesting a full and complete check and recanvass of the election results in Kentucky ... where he trails Hillary Clinton by less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote. The Sanders campaign said it has asked the Kentucky secretary of state to have election officials review electronic voting machines and absentee ballots from last week's primary in each of the state's 120 counties.

Source:
×