At last weekend's Super Bowl, Pop diva Christina Aguilera became the latest butcher of America's notoriously difficult national anthem. And no wonder. "The Star Spangled Banner" started life as the drinking song of a British private mens club.
Called the Anacreontic Society, this group of London doctors, lawyers, and other professional men met nominally to promote music, but really to enjoy fellowship and drink. They took their name from the ancient Greek poet, Anacreon, whose 6th century BC lyrics celebrated, well, wine, women, and song. The group put on regular concerts. The noted composer Franz Joseph Haydn was their guest in January, 1791. Club members included other notables such as dictionary-compiler Samuel Johnson, James Boswell (Johnson's famous biographer), and the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds.
The club's signature lyric, "To Anacreon in Heaven," was written by the club's president, Ralph Tomlinson, and set to music by club member John Stafford Smith in the mid 1760's. Smith was a teenager at the time, and the American Revolution was a decade in the future. Smith went on to a distinguished career as an organist, composer, and musicologist. Besides giving us the tune for our national anthem, we can thank him for collecting and preserving manuscripts of Johann Sebastian Bach.
History books skip over the War of 1812 for the most part. We remember Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans, even though the battle took place after the peace treaty was signed. Those things happened in the days before IM and Twitter. We remember at least the first stanza of the poem "Defence of Fort McHenry" by 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key.
We forget that the rest of the war was an exercise in stupidity and humiliation for our infant republic. Faced with raging war in Europe, we chose the side of the Napoleon Bonaparte, an absolute tyrant, over the only other democratic republic on Earth, Great Britain. We tried to take Canada, and were lucky to hang on to Maine.
In the years before the War of 1812, the Jefferson administration tried to disband the Army and Navy. While not completely successful, the US entered the War of 1812 with a very diminished military. The US declaring war on Great Britain in 1812 would be like present day Peru taking on the modern United States military.
Smarting from the occupation of New York City during the Revolutionary War, Gotham was well defended by impregnable shore batteries, including Governor's Island. Not able to raid the center of American commerce, the British contented themselves with burning the capital, which was still mostly under construction.
In September, 1814, the British turned their attention to the City of Baltimore, defended by Fort McHenry. Francis Scott Key boarded the British ship HMS Minden under a flag of truce with a mission from President Madison to secure an exchange of prisoners, including Key's friend, the elderly Dr. William Beanes. British Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane were discussing plans for attacking Baltimore over dinner as Key pressed his case. Because Dr. Beanes generously attended wounded British prisoners, the British officers agreed to let Beanes and Key go, but not until after the attack.
Key nervously watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry from a British warship. The fort stood, and in the morning, raised an even larger American flag to signal the failure of the attack. Key was inspired to write the poem the next day on the back of an envelope he kept in his pocket. Released a week later, Key completed the poem. He apparently cribbed liberally from an earlier song of his, also set to the tune of "Anacreon in Heaven," praising Stephen Decatur for his victory over the Barbary Pirates.
Although immediately popular, "The Star Spangled Banner" was not the official national anthem until a law signed by Herbert Hoover made it so in 1931. Until then, other patriotic songs like "Hail Columbia" and "My Country Tis of Thee" competed with "The Star Spangled Banner" to grace official and unofficial occasions. Yes, for most of our history, we had no national anthem. Believe it or not.
"The Star Spangled Banner" was performed before baseball games at the New York's Polo Grounds as early as 1898, but the singing of the national anthem did not become standard practice for Major League Baseball until World War II. Other professional major league sports followed.
I wonder how many Americans think that the last two words are "Play Ball!"
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