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Was “The Star-Spangled Banner” Set To A British Drinking Song?

Robert Couse Baker/flickr.com

There are very few things that are quite as American as its national anthem, but did you know the melody of the anthem was set to an old British drinking song?

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was a poem entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry” written by Francis Scott Key while he was detained on a British ship during a bombardment of Fort McHenry.

According to History, the poem was originally distributed by handbill during the War of 1812 and was later published in a Baltimore newspaper.

The poem was later set to the English song, “To Anacreon In Heaven,” which was a popular drinking song in both England and in the new United States.

About “To Anacreon In Heaven”

The Anacreon’s Society was a gentlemen’s club in Britain that celebrated the “wit, harmony, and the god of wine.”

The society’s song, “To Anacreon In Heaven,” was composed by the society collectively in the 1700s.

Here are the lyrics to the society’s song:

To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent in a petition
That he their Inspirer and patron would be;
When this answer arriv’d from the 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 intwine
“The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”

Ye Sons of Anacreon, then join hand in hand;
Preserve unanimity, friendship and love!
‘Tis yours to support what’s so happily plann’d;
You’ve the sanction of Gods and the fiat of Jove. While thus we agree Our toast let it be:
“May our club flourish happy, united and free!
“And long may the sons of Anacreon intwine
“The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”

Other National Anthems

“The Star-Spangled Banner” became the American national anthem in 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order making it so.  Congress affirmed the order in 1931.

What was the national anthem before “The Star Spangled Banner?”  Officially, there wasn’t a national anthem, but the two main songs had been “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” and “Hail Columbia.”

“My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”

“My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” is set to the British national anthem “God Save The Queen.”

“Hail Columbia”

“Hail Columbia” was originally called “Washington’s March” and was first played during George Washington’s journey from Mount Vernon, Virginia, to New York City for the nation’s first inauguration.

The song was the nation’s de facto national anthem until the 1890s.  It fell out of favor after World War I when the public felt more inspired by “The Star-Spangled Banner” than “Hail Columbia.”

“Hail Columbia” is currently the official song of the Vice President, like “Hail To The Chief” is to the President.

Do you have a favorite national anthem?

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