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"Star Spangled Banner"

History of an American Folk Song


American Flag

American Flag

photo: Getty Images
It is a tradition in American folk music to borrow the melodies of already popular songs and write new lyrics for them. So it is no surprise that Francis Scott Key's poem, "The Star-Spangled Banner" (c. 1814), was sung to the tune of an already popular English drinking song. The source of the melody—a song called "To Anacreon in Heaven"—was already popular in the States, although the lyrics had been changed several times.

When Key's poem became a popular choice of lyrics to that tune, the U.S. Navy adopted it for their ceremonies in 1889, and thus began a long, arduous effort to get "The Star Spangled Banner" named the National Anthem. Finally, in 1931, by congressional decree under President Herbert Hoover, the song was officially named the national anthem of the United States.

The Attack on Baltimore

Key wrote the poem after the British attack on Baltimore. He was inspired when, after the battle had cleared, he saw a large American flag still flying over the fort. The original title of the poem was "Defence of Fort McHenry," although it eventually became known as "The Star Spangled Banner," after one of the song's most prominent lines.

Early Performances

Early performances of the song saw it being played as flags were raised, during the 1918 World Series, and other events. It has since become a standard at the opening of sports events and other ceremonies, when those not in uniform are expected to stand at attention and salute the flag as the anthem is sung.

National Anthem and Folk Song

Most people wouldn't readily equate the national anthem with folk music but, in actuality, it's one of the folkiest folk songs there is. It features cleverly crafted lyrics set to a traditional melody. It was adopted by a large community of people to represent their values and desires. And, it is known by just about everyone within that community (or, in this case, the country).
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