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Q: Is “The Star-Spangled Banner” Really a Drinking Song?

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A: Every third grader knows the story of Francis Scott Key penning those beautiful verses while watching the siege of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 (okay, so maybe they’re a little sketchy on the Fort McHenry part). But that’s just the poem. Where did all those musical notes come from?

Well, when Key wrote the anthem, he had a song in his head as a reference for the poem’s meter (a song from England, ironically enough). The tune, notoriously difficult to sing (you might sound like Francis Scott Off-Key if you try), is from a drinking song written by John Stafford Smith originally titled “Anacreon in Heaven.”

It was the theme song of a club of rich London men who got together to eat, drink, and then — for good measure — drink some more. The Anacreontic Club took its name from Anacreon, a Greek poet who wrote about such carrying-on. Obviously, the fact that the anthem comes from a drinking song might strike a wrong note with some people, but if you think about it, where is it that we hear the song sung most? That’s right, at the ballpark — while we hold our overpriced hotdog in one hand and beer in the other!

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  • Vern Halen

    A drinking song? Fascinating.

    Who was it that said the Star Spangled Banner is the only national anthem that asks a whole bunch of questions but doesn’t answer any of them?

    And let’s all not forget Walt Kelly, who’s critters in Pogo were always trying to get the national anthem changed to “I was eating some chop suey with a lady in St. Looie” because it only had one note so everyone cold sing it correctly.

    Or Jimi Hendrix, who gave a whole new meaning to the “rockets’ red glare/The bombs bursting in air” section.