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The Star-Spangled Banner

"The Star-Spangled Banner" is the national anthem of the United States. The lyrics to the song were written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet. Key wrote the song after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland by British ships in the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812. The song became popular in the U.S. and was put to the tune of the English drinking song "To Anacreon in Heaven." The song was made the national anthem by a Congressional resolution on March 3, 1931.


Early history

On September 3, 1814, Key and John S. Skinner of Baltimore, an American prisoner exchange agent, set sail from Baltimore aboard a sloop flying a flag of truce approved by James Madison. Their goal was to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, the elderly and popular town physican of Upper Marlboro, a friend of Key's who had been captured in Washington, DC and had been accused of harboring British deserters. Key and Skinner boarded the British flagship HMS Tonnant on September 7 and spoke with General Robert Ross and Admiral Alexander Cochrane over dinner, while they also discussed war plans. In the beginning, Ross and Cochrane refused to release Beanes, but relented after Key and Skinner showed them letters written by wounded British prisoners praising Beanes and other Americans for their kind treatment.

Because Key and Skinner had heard much of the preparations for the Baltimore attack, they were held captive until after the battle, first aboard HMS Surprise, and later onto the sloop, waiting behind the British fleet. On September 13, at 7 a.m., the fighting began, continuing for 25 hours of British bombardment all through the night until September 14 while the British fleet attacked the fort during the Battle of Baltimore. During the night, Key witnessed the battle, and was inspired by the American victory and the sight of the enormous American flag still standing in the midst of the battle.

The next day, Key wrote a poem aboard the ship on the back of a letter he had in his pocket, continuing to write during the sail. After being released with Skinner in Baltimore at twilight on September 16, Key finished the poem at the Indian Queen Hotel where he was staying, entitling it "Defence of Fort M'Henry."

Keys gave his poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, who suggested that the poem be set to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," a popular English drinking song dating from around 1800, written by John Stafford Smith. Nicholson took the poem to a printer. These broadside copies, the song's first known printing, were printed anonymously on in Baltimore on September 17 — of these, two known copies still exist.

On September 20, both the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the song, with the note "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven." The song instantly became popular, with 17 newspapers from Georgia to New Hampshire printing it. Soon after, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together under the title "The Star-Spangled Banner." The song quickly became popular, and the first public performance of "the Star-Spangled Banner" took place in October, when Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang sang the song at Captain McCauley's tavern.

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ordered that "The Star-Spangled Banner" be played at military occasions. Two year later, in 1918, the song was first played at a baseball game; in the World Series, the band started an impromptu performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the seventh-inning stretch. The players and spectators stood at attention, took off their hats, and sang, giving rise to a tradition that is repeated at almost every professional baseball game in United States today.

It was adopted as the national anthem of the United States on March 3, 1931.

Adaptations and modern history

The most famous instrumental interpretation is Jimi Hendrix's guitar solo at the first Woodstock Festival. Although it was condemned by some conservatives as a desecration to the song, it has since become a celebrated emblematic signature of the ideals of the late 1960s.

When sung in public (before major sporting events, for example), for reasons of brevity, verses after the first are typically omitted; relatively few Americans know the words beyond the first verse.


  • The tune 'To Anacreon in Heaven' was at one time the national anthem of Luxembourg.
  • Because it is the most explicitly anti-British verse, the third is virtually never sung.
  • As a point of trivia, the first stanza is full of questions. It is in the other stanzas that these questions are answered, although they are almost never sung.


Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out of their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Bles't with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.


External links

Patriotic Music of the United States
"America the Beautiful" | "Ballad of the Green Berets" | "Battle Cry of Freedom " | "Battle Hymn of the Republic" | "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean " | "For The Dear Old Flag, I Die " | "God Bless America" | "God Bless the USA" | "Hail to the Chief" | "My Country, Tis of Thee" | "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere " | "This is My Country " | "This Land is Your Land" | "Stars and Stripes Forever" | "The Star-Spangled Banner" | "Yankee Doodle" | "You're a Grand Old Flag" | "When Johnny Comes Marching Home "

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45