1814 first sheet music edition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” arranged by Thomas Carr; courtesy the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
As Independence Day approaches, one of the America’s foremost experts on “The Star-Spangled Banner” talks about the history of the U.S. national anthem and projects surrounding the bicentennial year of its anniversary.
Mark Clague, professor at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is the founding board chair of the Star Spangled Music Foundation and the editor and producer of the Star Spangled Songbook and its associated recording project, Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
10 Quick “Star-Spangled” Facts:
- “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as Francis Scott Key’s song is now known, was written in mid-September 1814 to celebrate the defeat of the British navy at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. We are currently in the midst of its bicentennial year.
- Before it was named “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it was titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” The name we know today appears in the first sheet music imprint published in October/November 1814 and helped broaden the appeal of the song to the entire nation.
- During the Civil War, Union supporters used a German translation of the song to recruit German-speakers to volunteer for the militia. Since then, Key’s lyric has been translated into more than a dozen languages.
- The anthem was first played at a professional sporting event in 1862 in Brooklyn, N.Y., where a band had been hired to celebrate the opening of a new baseball stadium. It was performed at the first World Series in 1903 in Boston.
- It wasn’t until 1931 that Key’s song became the official anthem of the U.S. by act of Congress. Prohibitionists, nationalists, pacifists and even music teachers opposed the choice, suggesting alternatives including “Hail Columbia” and “America, the Beautiful.”
- Why did music teachers protest? The tune is indeed a strange choice for a national anthem. Its melodic compass from lowest note to highest is an octave plus a fifth (known to musicians as a twelfth) making the melody awkward at best for group singing—and a musical feat for a soloist.
- Women played a major role in the anthem’s adoption. The Daughters of the War of 1812 were major advocates of the 1931 act of Congress that President Hoover signed. As causes go, this was a safe arena in which women could engage in political activism in the early 20th century.
- There is not technically an original, traditional or otherwise official version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” While some state laws have attempted to legislate appropriate performance style and demeanor, no single official standard exists.
- Psychedelic rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix performed the anthem in concert at least 60 times, though most know only his famous rendition at the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
- The anthem has four verses, but we only sing one. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., an influential writer from Boston, actually added a fifth verse in 1861 with new words advocating that American slaves be unchained.