Behind the Song Lyrics: “The Star Spangled Banner”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

What is it exactly that makes an anthem? Is it the lyrics, the music, the writer? When you think of anthems, one really big one probably comes to mind. We’ve heard Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” millions of times – opening at sports events, at patriotic celebrations, and more. Raising their hands to their hearts, everyone proudly recites the beloved song from long-instilled memory. But how did the song come to be known as the United States’ national anthem?  

The Origins

The War of 1812 had just begun, and lawyer/amateur poet Francis Scott Key had just witnessed the destruction of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. Key found inspiration in the large United States flag, known as the Star-Spangled Banner, flying triumphantly above the fort after the U.S. declared victory. 

Whose broad stripes and bright stars 
Through the perilous fight 
O’er the ramparts we watch’d 
Were so gallantly streaming? 

Lyrics and music come together.

The historic lyrics started as a poem called “The Defence of Fort McHenry” and were later set to a tune called “The Anacreontic Song,” composed in the late 1700s by a man named John Stafford Smith. The song was linked to the Anacreontic Society, an amateur musician’s and singer’s club named after the Greek poet Anacreon. 

What may be strange about the accompanying tune is that it was a familiar drinking song composed by a British composer. Odd, no? 

Title Change

Despite the strange nature of the accompanying music, the song quickly became a hit. It was printed under the title of “Defence of Fort McHenry,” and newspapers all over the U.S. included the heroic verses in their copies. The song’s name came about due to a brave music printer who took the liberty of changing the title to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The rest, of course, is history. 

And the rocket’s red glare 
The bombs bursting in air 
Gave proof through the night 
That our flag was still there 

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave 
O’er the land of the free 
And the home of the brave? 

The Legacy

It would take quite a few years for the song to build its legacy, however. Though popular among the American people, “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t adopted as the official anthem of the United States until Congress and President Herbert Hoover signed it into law in 1931.  

Despite what exactly makes an anthem, one thing is for certain. Historic events make way for art that last centuries.  

Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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