The Straight Dope on the Star Spangled Banner

When Francis Scott Key scribbled the lyrics for America’s Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, it was from the deck of an American sloop in the Baltimore Harbor. Only, it wasn’t called the Star Spangled Banner Yet. It also wasn’t an anthem or even a song.

It was the 14th of September 1814, year two of the War of 1812, otherwise known as the American Revolution Part II. The British had just laid siege to Fort McHenry, in Maryland, but had failed to take it.

Key looked towards the Fort where he spied a flag flying tattered on the flag pole as if it had flown all through the perilous night. It hadn’t.

The War of 1812 was not the American Revolution. It was a crappy sequel and a point of contention between nations. Like most sequels, it was not as good as the original, but at least the U.S. came away from it with some rousing lyrics.

In fact, there are a few items surrounding the creation of the U.S. national anthem which mandate review. You may have your history twisted…

Not the Revolution

The War of 1812 remains a point of confusion for many Americans. Didn’t the U.S. declare independence back in 1776?

The American Revolution ended in 1783. By all accounts, the British should have won. They had way more money, experience, and supplies. The colonists fought using everything at their disposal, including guerrilla warfare.

In the end, it made more financial sense for the British to make the colonists into trade partners.

It also meant the U.S. could trade with other nations, like France. Then the British and the French fought in the Napoleonic Wars towards the end of the 18th century.

To bleed the French, the Brits cut off trade routes to France. The super short version is that this hurt the U.S. so Washington declared war on Britain, and attempted to take Canada in the War of 1812.

It was a sloppy effort, one the British rebuffed in three years, but it was this war and not the Revolutionary War that inspired Key’s poetry.

Not an Anthem or a Song

It’s true that Key had a melody in mind when he penned the lyrics for the Star Spangled Banner. In a twist of irony, it was an old British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.”

We know because the time signature matches the tune perfectly. Also, Key had previously composed lyrics to work with the same song. It must have been an ear worm in his head, the melody teasing out new lyrics with every passing inspiration.

The problem was that Key was not a songwriter, but a lawyer who sometimes wrote poetry. What he wrote was technically that, a poem. Key hadn’t composed any melody, even though he had one in mind..

Later, folks married his poem with “To Anacreon in Heaven.” It wasn’t until 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson would brand the tune as the national anthem.

Not the Same Banner

Key penned that the “broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,” but that was an assumption he couldn’t know was incorrect. There was a flag flying in the morning over Fort McHenry, but it was not the same flag that flew during the night.

The normal banner that would have flown was 30-feet-by-42 of a woolen flag. During the battle, there were more than bombs bursting in the air. Huge drops of rain also fell.

The massive flag would have weighed some 500 pounds soaking wet, enough to break the flagpole. Thus, the soldiers would have pulled it down when the rain started.

In its place, they would have flown the smaller storm flag. When the rain cleared in the early morning, they would have raised the normal flag again.

One last thing…

For a song that enjoys better rotation than any pop song in history, few Americans know it entirely. Key wrote four verses to the Star Spangled Banner. We normally hear only the first.

It’s the thought that counts?

For the average writer, that anything we write should last beyond our days would be an honor. A national anthem, sung every day? Get outta here.