Presidents’ Day seems like the right time to answer this question.
Most of us wince when we have to sing our national anthem because its wide range from low to high notes ( an octave plus a fifth) is beyond most of our abilities to sing comfortably. Haven’t you often wondered if the celebrity singer at the ball game is going to be able to hit “the rocket’s red glare” without cracking (and mentally cursing Francis Scott Key)?
Well, you can’t blame him for the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
He didn’t write it. Only the words are his.
The melody was actually composed by John Stafford Smith, an Englishman, sometime in the 1770’s, for an elite London men’s club.
It was originally a drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and it bawdily praised the pleasures of wine, women and song. It was so popular at the time that it spread to the lower classes in England and on to America, where many different lyrics were added for different purposes, including the political campaigns of George Washington and John Adams.
Why was this melody so popular, given that it’s not easy for most people to sing?
Perhaps the expansive leaps of the music suggested the expansive possibilities of the American continent, and the words suggested a glorious future for a victorious new country–the right melody and the right words forming a perfect combination of felt meaning.
It’s not so surprising then that the melody would have easily come to the mind of Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer (who may have been tone deaf), when he saw the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor after a bitter battle during the War of 1812 with England.
By the way, Francis Scott Key himself played only a minor role in the war and its aftermath. He was there in 1814 to negotiate the release of a friend who had been captured by the British during the bombardment of the city.
You could say that this migration of a British tune, having quite a different origin than you would expect, is one of the great ironies of music history. But it’s not so unusual. In 1976, on a radio program celebrating the American bicentennial, Josh spoke about “Tunes, those promiscuous drifters, now mating with one set of lyrics, now another.” There is something stirring in certain melodies that makes us want to sing them, even when they’re difficult. And when the old melodies and new words are well- matched, the mating can turn into an enduring marriage
Here is Whitney Houston singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It seems a fitting requiem for an amazing singer.
A final note: “The Star-Spangled Banner” was officially adopted as our national anthem only in 1931 during the Hoover administration!