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'Star-Spangled Banner' Born From A Drinking Song 200 Years Ago


If you're thinking of forming an 18th century English gentlemen's social club - and let's face it, who isn't - you'll certainly want to have a nice theme song. The Anacreontic Society had this one, written in 1776.


DAVID HILDEBRAND: (Singing) To Anacreon in Heav'n, where he sat in full glee, a few Sons of Harmony sent a petition that he their Inspirer and Patron would be - when this answer arrived from that Jolly Old Grecian.

SIEGEL: Not a bad tune. I guess you could drink to that.


We bring up this piece of arcane musical history because 200 years ago this Sunday, a lawyer named Francis Scott Key had the tune in mind when he posed a question.

SIEGEL: Mr. Key's question was how in the heck did that big flag over Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor survive an attack by British warships? Was the American Republic going to survive? He set his question to "The Anacreontic Song" and it was a good choice because a lot of people knew it.


WESTMINSTER CHOIR COLLEGE: (Singing) And besides I'll instruct you, like me, to intwine the Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus' Vine.

CORNISH: Francis Scott Key got rid of those naughty bits about intwining and the myrtle of Venus and wrote his own words - oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

SIEGEL: Though when we sing it, it sounds less like a question.

HILDEBRAND: The melody dates back to a poem written in the 1760s.

SIEGEL: David Hildebrand is director of the Colonial Music Institute in Severna Park, Maryland. He's also the soloist we heard singing earlier with members of Princeton, New Jersey's Westminster Choir College. He says the namesake of the English society with the tune was Anacreon, an ancient Greek poet.

HILDEBRAND: And the poem was rather sarcastically imagining they could contact Anacreon's spirit up in heaven and ask him to give his blessings upon their gentlemanly society. And so it's a hedonistic song and it's a bit silly. But it definitely praises wine and love.

CORNISH: When the "Star-Spangled Banner" was put forward to be our national anthem, one of the concerns was that it was set to this English drinking song. But in the end, it triumphed over "Yankee Doodle," among others. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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