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Well into the 19th century, it was a common practice to attach new words to existing melodies. For example, most early American hymnals (books of hymns to be sung in church) showed just the words and told singers which well-known tune they should sing the words to. This practice was only beginning to change during the period in which "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written. A new method for teaching sight-singing known as shape-note singing was being developed. Some congregations started hiring instructors to teach their members this method, which allowed them to sing new melodies. Still, many rural congregations hung onto the old hymnals that attached dozens of songs to a much shorter list of tunes.
Francis Scott Key's words, however, were not attached to one of the familiar sacred melodies. Instead, somebody—it’s not clear who—linked them to a popular drinking song written by a Brit 40 years earlier. "The Anacreontic Song" was composed by John Stafford Smith and sung by members of his social club, the Anacreontic Society. According to the society, its purpose was to promote music and music appreciation in the city of London. Despite its goals, the group was mostly known for its rowdy gatherings filled with drinking and singing. In fact, the group's namesake, Anacreon, was a Greek poet who lived in the sixth century B.C. and was famous for his works celebrating wine, women, and song.
The “standard” arrangement of the song has not changed all that much over the past 200 years. A 21st-century military band plays the song just about the same way an 18th-century band would have played it. Yet the influence of more recent musical genres, such as jazz and rock, has also shaped many contemporary renditions. For example, Whitney Houston’s popular performance of the song before the 1991 Super Bowl began with a fairly traditional military band instrumental before shifting to a more free-ranging soul vocal. Jim Hendrix incorporated many of his signature electric guitar tricks like the use of feedback and distortion within his performance of the song at Woodstock in 1969. Marvin Gaye even brought the R&B sensuality of his recently released “Sexual Healing” to his performance of the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star game.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" has a very specific setting: the battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Even more specifically, it tells the story of the British naval bombardment of Fort McHenry between the mornings of September 13 and 14, 1814.
The fort had been built to protect Baltimore shortly after the American Revolution. Shaped like a five-pointed star, surrounded by a dry moat, and situated on a small peninsula that jutted into the harbor, the fort was designed to protect the city from a naval attack up the Chesapeake.
Francis Scott Key kept a concerned watch on the fort from the deck of the HMS Minden. The ship had been built in the British shipyards of Bombay, India, and was seeing its first action during the war against America. Its 74 guns fired a steady stream of shells against the vulnerable American fort.
The battle occurred at a pivotal moment in the war. Just three weeks earlier, British forces had captured and burned the nation's capital at Washington, D.C. Betrayed by poor intelligence and defended, primarily, by poorly trained militia, the city fell with hardly a shot fired in its defense. The sacking of Washington, D.C. was a humiliating blow to the American cause. From the beginning, the Federalist-dominated New England states had opposed the war. Since then, escalating costs and battlefield defeats had strengthened this opposition. Now, with the capital in ruins, many urged surrender or negotiation.
The victory at Fort McHenry immediately reversed the national mood. New Englanders still opposed the war, but supporters in the South and West were revitalized by the victory. It was this broader significance of the battle that explains the song's immediate popularity. It was published locally in Baltimore in September. In October it was performed for the first time, and in November the song was printed in a national magazine.
Most are so familiar with “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a song that they forget that it was written as a poem. Francis Scott Key was an amateur poet, not a musician. In fact, some argue that it was his brother-in-law, Judge J. H. Nicholson, who figured out how to fit the words to a popular drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven.”
If the judge did advise Key to turn the poem into a song, it was good advice; it’s doubtful that Key would have been remembered for the “Defence of Fort McHenry,” his original title for the piece. None of his other works have received critical praise, and no one has suggested that this work is any stronger than his others.
Key’s poem does, however, illustrate certain literary conventions of the period. It follows a conventional rhyme scheme (A-B-A-B-C-C-D-D), and it employs a meter common to the neo-classical poetry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. After an initial iambic (“O! say”), the poem’s first line delivers three anapests. An anapest is a three beat phrase consisting of two short syllables followed by an accented or long syllable (“can you see . . . by the dawn’s . . .ear-ly light”). In subsequent lines, Key throws in an occasional extra syllable—the “ing” of gleaming and streaming—, but for the most part he relies on anapests to sustain the poem’s waltz-like rhythm.
The poem’s rhythmic regularity complemented its moral confidence. Neoclassical poets like Key believed in an orderly universe in which good triumphed over evil. They also believed that art should reflect and advance this order. Poems should not confuse their readers with irregular rhyme schemes and meters, nor should they undermine the moral order of society by turning villains into sympathetic heroes or allowing evil to triumph over good. Key’s poem met these criteria. In his “Defence of Fort McHenry” the invaders who introduced the “havoc of war” are defeated, and in the end, the “star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”