The Star-Spangled Banner

John Stafford Smith

The Star-Spangled Banner

About this work

The technical description of America's national anthem is that it is a strophic song in four verses in 3/4 time, usually played in B flat major. It has an unusually wide compass and tricky leaps, including one of a major tenth to a register uncomfortably high for most, that make it relatively difficult to sing. The same qualities make it unusually dramatic and distinctive among the world's 200 or so national anthems. Only the first verse is commonly sung or widely known.

Francis Scott Key, the author of the words, wrote their first draft on September 14, 1814, on the back of a letter while detained on a sloop in Chesapeake Bay by British forces that for the last 24 hours had bombarded the defenses of the city of Baltimore. The military and naval action was part of a British effort in the War of 1812 to harass U.S. forces, break the country's morale by occupying and burning Washington, D.C., and draw American forces south and decrease resistance to a planned major invasion from Canada (then a British colony).

When the battle began at 7:30 a.m. on September 13, Baltimore's defensive strong point, Fort McHenry, had defiantly flown an immense 30 x 42-foot garrison flag specially made to draw British attention. When rain started, the fort hauled down that flag and replaced it with a small standard storm flag, impossible for Key to see from eight miles away on his sloop. Throughout the 24-hour battle only the fact that cannon fired, bombs burst, and Congreve rockets were launched allowed Key and his companions to deduce that the fort was still under the American flag.

Key could not have known that from 1 a.m. onward the British had given up the effort to take Baltimore and were withdrawing their forces back to their ships. At 7:30 a.m. they began to sail away, and the American commander had the giant flag flown in continued defiance. Overjoyed at its sight, Key wrote the first draft of his poem, "The Defence of Fort M'Henry." He was released on September 16 and revised the poem that night at a Baltimore hotel. Key had the poem printed the next day and went to the fort to hand out free copies to all its defenders. Within four days a Baltimore newspaper published it, and it was on the way to becoming America's anthem -- a status that it did not gain officially until elevated by an Act of Congress in 1931.

The earliest printed versions of the poem contained the note: "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven." This was a well-known tune written by British composer John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a group of gentlemen music-lovers. It toasts Anacreon, a Greek lyric poet who was born in 570 B.C. Key knew the tune, and probably consciously fit his words to its cadences. Smith lived until 1836, long enough to learn that his tune had been adopted for use as an anti-British patriotic song by the Americans.