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The drinking song that became "The Star-Spangled Banner"...

Oh Say, Can You See?

"Anacreon" by Jean Leon Gerome, 1848 
"The Star-Spangled Banner" was originally an anthem to this guy...

Hear It Here! (.mp3 - first recording ever!)      Read It Here! (w/m, Library of Congress)

Few know that America's national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written in 1780 by John Stafford Smith, as "To Anacreon In Heaven,"  the constitutional song of the Anacreaontic Society of London, with words written by Ralph Tomlinson, an early president of the Society. The Society was a group of mostly amateur musicians, with a sprinkling of professionals, that met every two weeks at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand for a concert followed by a dinner and much merrymaking thereafter. Each concert was formally opened by this song, performed by the President and joined by the company on the refrain lines. The song itself depicts a squabble among the Greek gods, to which wine-god Bacchus has (is) the solution (literally), and all join in devotion to "the myrtle of Venus and Bacchus's vine." The Society finally folded in 1786 due to the dampening influence of the Duchess of Devonshire who had bought a secret box under the stage, and the uncertainty of whose presence prevented the members from indulging in their usual rounds of bawdy songs and ballads. 

The tune was too good to perish, however, and countless parodies were set to it both in Britain and in America over the coming two generations, such as "Adams and Liberty," "Anacreon's Reply," and many more. The song might still have passed out of existence had it not been for Francis Scott Key's new set of words penned September 14, 1814, the morning after the unsuccessful siege of Forth McHenry, at Baltimore, Maryland, by the British. His poem, "Defense Of Fort McHenry" ("tune: Anacreon In Heaven") hit the streets the very next day, and was published the next year with the music as "The Star-Spangled Banner," with a slightly-altered tune (in C, the original used F-natural, not the current F#) and it took its current place as the United States' national anthem more than a century later on March 3, 1931.

Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet (563-478 BC) whose many poems about the pleasures of wine and its results earned him the reputation as the bard of the grape. He is reputed to have died at the ripe old age of 86 from, appropriately, choking on a grape seed... 

Lately, a new Spanish translation of "The Star-Spangled Banner" has caused waves among American  English-language purists who insist that the original words in the original language are sacrosanct. Alas, few of them know that the original words aren't, in fact, the original words at all. Worse, the tune itself may not even be Anglo in origin, as John Stafford Smith is thought by some to have lifted it from a military song by...the French!!!

The painting of Anacreon (above) is by Jean Leon Gerome, and the recording is performed by John Townley from The Top Hits Of 1776 on Adelphi Records.

Note: To see and listen to the complete Top Hits Of 1776 album, click here...

Copyright © John Townley 2006. All rights reserved.
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