The Real Story of the Star Spangled Banner

By Karen Harris

Patrons walk among the canons and an American flag flown at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, MD on September 9, 2014, the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Colin Kaepernick knelt through it. Rosanne Barr grabbed her crotch while singing it. Whitney Houston nailed it beautifully. James Taylor forgot the words to it. And Jimi Hendrix put his own unique twist on it. Of course, we are talking about the Star Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States of America. This one song has sparked an equal amount of pride and controversy, but one thing we can all agree with…there is more to the anthem than meets the eye. Here is what you might not know about the Star Spangled Banner.


It Started Life as a Poem

Okay, you probably already knew that. The Star Spangled Banner was written in September of 1814 by Francis Scott Key, a lawyer, not a poet, as he was hoping to see the flag of the United States still flying over Fort McHenry after a night of fighting during the War of 1812. Key had a unique vantage point from which to watch the fighting, which became known as the Battle of Baltimore…the American watched the battle from a British ship. Key had gone willingly aboard the enemy vessel in hopes of talking the British into releasing his friend who was being held there. On the ship, Key learned of the impending attack on Fort McHenry. The Brits couldn’t risk him warning the American troops so they detained him until after the battle. 


A Poem By Any Other Name

Inspired by the fierce battle in the Baltimore Harbor and his strong feeling of anticipation as he awaited the first light of dawn that would show him which country’s flag was flying over Fort McHenry, Key jotted down his impressions of the battle. Very quickly, he arranged these musings into a poem he titles, “The Defense of Fort McHenry”. The poem was published in newspapers around the country as a first-person account of the battle. Key later changed the name of his poem to “The Star-Spangled Banner” because he felt it shifted the focus of the words away from the battle and onto the American flag

Bacchaus, the god of wine and merrymaking. (Jon Neimeister,

Yes, the Words Were Set to an Old Drinking Song

When Key penned the poem, he did so with a specific beat in mind…the tune to “To Anacreon in Heaven” by John Stafford Smith, a British composer. Smith’s song is an ode to Bacchus, the pagan god of wine, drinking, and merrymaking. In it, there are references to how Bacchus wants to get himself tangled up with Venus, the goddess of love. So it is true that the National Anthem is sung to the melody of an older song praising drunkenness and lovemaking. 


Francis Scott Key Was a Slave Owner

Francis Scott Key was a Southern slave owner and a pro-slavery advocate. For him, the line “land of the free” did not mean freedom for all. Just prior to the start of the Civil War in 1861, Bostonian Oliver Wendell Holmes, an anti-slavery writer, added a stanza to Key’s original poem in which he called for the emancipation of all American slaves. 

President Herbert Hoover (

The Star Spangled Banner Didn’t Become the National Anthem Until 1931

Although the song had been used by the U.S. Navy for quite some time, it wasn’t until 1931 that The Star Spangled Banner officially became the national anthem for the United States. Maryland representative, John Linthicum, proposed legislation on April 15, 1929, that would establish the song as the national anthem, but it took him nearly a year to get the measure passed so that President Herbert Hoover could sign it into law. Linthicum felt strongly that the country needed a national song as a unifying and patriotic move, but his opponents accused him of selecting a song from his hometown as a plug for Baltimore. In the end, Linthicum submitted a petition with more than 5 million signatures in support of the song. 

Jimi Hendrix performs the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. (

People Complained that the Star Spangled Banner is Hard to Sing

The music to which The Star Spangled Banner is set is a challenging piece of music with a range of 19 semitones. It is not an easy song to sing as most people don’t have the vocal range to hit all the notes. Additionally, the lyrics can cause confusion…it is not uncommon for a singer to loop back to another line instead of moving on in the lyrics. Despite its challenges…and the detractors who point out the song’s glorification of war, Key’s racist background, and the connection to immoral drinking and merrymaking…The Star Spangled Banner has become indelibly linked to the United States as a symbol of the nation’s flag and to country’s ability to rise up to meet obstacles. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.