This is the time of year when millions of Americans turn their attention to baseball’s World Series. Experts differ about who will win, but I feel confident in making this prediction: Sometime during the Series, some entertainer will humiliate himself (or herself) while attempting to sing the U.S. national anthem. It happens a lot.
In fairness, it is a difficult tune to sing, with its unusual octave-and-a-half range. Somewhere around “And the rockets’ red glare,” the anthem singer often appears to be straining to pass a kidney stone. The panicked look on the singer’s face tells you he’s also struggling to remember the words.
Those words were written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, a lawyer who had been sent to negotiate the release of a prisoner during the War of 1812. Because Key had gotten a good look at the deployment of British forces in the area around Baltimore, he was detained so that he couldn’t report back to American military commanders.
During the night of September 13-14, Key was aboard a British ship in Chesapeake Bay, from which he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry. In the morning, he saw the American flag still flying above the fort, and knew that meant McHenry and other forts had successfully defended Baltimore.
That’s when he wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the back of a letter he found in his pocket. After his release from British custody that day, he made some revisions to the text while in a Baltimore hotel.
He seems to have adjusted the lyrics to fit a popular tune that he had in mind. You know how you get a song stuck in your brain and you can’t make it go away? Maybe that’s what happened to Francis Scott Key. The tune was a drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven”, which had been composed by John Stafford Smith for a London gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians.
The original lyrics, as sung by members of the Anacreontic Society, were sort of bawdy — in general, they were about the pleasures of wine, women and song. You can imagine a bunch of drunk guys bellowing those high notes which cause professionals so much grief.
Within a decade or so after the song was first published in 1779, the tune had been appropriated for other songs, most of which were patriotic. In fact, Francis Scott Key had used that same tune himself for an 1805 composition he called “When the Warrior Returns”.
On September 20, 1814, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was printed in the Baltimore Patriot and soon became popular as other newspapers around the country also printed it.
Francis Scott Key continued his legal career, arguing many cases before the Supreme Court. It is also worth noting that Key was the namesake of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. Both men seem to have been familiar with drinking songs.
In spite of its popularity, “The Star-Spangled Banner” didn’t officially become the national anthem of the United States until 1931. That may have been around the time when the anthem’s final words — “Play ball!” — were added.