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Bringing History to Life Through Music

Was the “Star-Spangled Banner” really an old drinking song?

The words to our national anthem have nothing to do with consumption of alcohol, but the melody that Francis Scott Key had in mind when he wrote those words did originate decades earlier as the melody for a song in praise of wine.

That Francis Scott Key borrowed a popular melody for his famous song is very much in keeping with common practice of his time period. Many lyrics for songs written in the 18th and early 19th centuries were based upon popular melodies.  Before there was copyright protection, melodies were recycled over and over again. These melodies, known by name by almost everyone, were used for whatever purpose presented itself—a political song, a hymn, march tune, a drinking song, or a country dance. Melodies to theater songs were used for dancing, and dance tunes, even fast Irish jigs, were sometimes given sets of words.

Many sets of lyrics had been written to the melody that Key chose for his verses that eventually became our national anthem. In fact, by 1820, eighty-four were written in the United States alone. And unlike most common melodies, we know who wrote the original words and music, and why!

The song dates from the mid-1770s and it was composed for a group of London gentlemen who had recently formed a social club. The club met every other week in the winter. The meetings included a formal concert, a dinner, and a social time afterwards during which the members entertained each other by singing catches, glees, and amusing songs. In 1780, the diverse membership included “peers, commoners, aldermen, gentlemen, proctors, actors, and polite tradesmen.”

One of the club’s founders, Ralph Tomlinson (1744–1778), wrote the words in 1776, at about the same time he became president of the club.

To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron should be.
When this answer arrived from that jolly old Grecian:
Voice, fiddle and flute no longer be mute,
I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot,
And besides I’ll instruct you like me to entwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine."
      (this is the first of six verses, the others can be found in the image below)
Tomlinson’s lyrics tell of Anacreon (see photograph taken by William Houpt, of the statue of Anacreon at the Musée D'Orsay in Paris), a Greek poet who was born about 572 B.C. Anacreon wrote extensively about women and wine, and that was his main attraction to the London gentlemen. The name of the club became “The Anacreontic Society,” in honor of ‘that jolly old Grecian.’ The title of the new song came from the opening line, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and it became widely known by this name within a short time after its first publication in around 1779 (the year of Francis Scott Key’s birth!).

John Stafford Smith (1750–1836) wrote the music. He was not a member of the club but was well known in London as organist at the Chapel Royal, a composer and a writer about music. Tomlinson may have commissioned him to write the tune for his new lyrics. A popular song was often quickly parodied by others and so it was with Tomlinson’s. Many new sets of words to the same melody appeared on broadsides, newspapers, songsters and in songbooks. Sometimes the intended melody was listed as To Anacreon in Heaven, but not always—since the distinctive structure of the poetry made the intended melody obvious.

By 1798 many new songs set to this melody had been published, including one in praise of our second president, called “Adams and Liberty—The Boston Patriotic Song.” After Jefferson was elected, another set of lyrics to the tune was entitled “Jefferson and Liberty.” So it is probable that Francis Scott Key knew this melody for most of his life. In fact, he chose the same melody for another song that he wrote in 1805, beginning “When the warrior returns..” This too was a patriotic effusion, one that praised Stephen Decatur and the other heroes of the Tripolitan Wars.

It is interesting to note that the “Star Spangled Banner” did not become our national anthem officially until 1931, one hundred and fifty years after the tune’s initial use, yes, as a drinking song.

Source: William Lichtenwanger, “The Music of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ From Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 34/3 (July 1977), 136–170. The song images are from The Nightingale, A Collection of the Most Popular, Ancient, & Modern Songs, Set to Music (Portsmouth, NH: William and Daniel Treadwell, 1804), pp.188–191, courtesy of Arthur F. Schrader.