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!