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
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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.

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