Posted by: L. E. Barnes | July 13, 2011

What Do You Mean It’s not American?

July is the month that we Americans celebrate our country’s independence from the shackles of British tyranny. And of course, no July 4 celebration would be complete without our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” being played or sung. But do you know the song’s origins? The lyrics were written by an American named Francis Scott Key, who was inspired to wax poetic about the heroic defense of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. What about the melody? Surely it too had to have been penned by an American, as what could be more American than “The Star Spangled Banner”? Actually, the melody isn’t American, but English. That’s right–we owe the melody of our own national anthem to the very country our forebears fought to gain independence from. And the song that the melody was written for wasn’t particularly dignified either, as the following recording reveals (though of course it doesn’t help that the singer’s talents left something to be desired):

Here are the lyrics, in case you had trouble following them in the video:

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 wou’d be;
When this Answer arriv’d from the JOLLY OLD GRECIAN
“Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
“No longer be mute,
“I’ll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
“And, besides, I’ll instruct you like me, to intwine
“The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS’s Vine.

2
The news through OLYMPUS immediately flew;
When OLD THUNDER pretended to give himself Airs_
If these Mortals are suffer’d their Scheme to pursue,
The Devil a Goddess will stay above Stairs.
“Hark! already they cry,
“In Transports of Joy
“Away to the Sons of ANACREON we’ll fly,
“And there, with good Fellows, we’ll learn to intwine
“The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS’S Vine.

3
“The YELLOW-HAIR’D GOD and his nine fusty Maids
“From HELICON’S Banks will incontinent flee,
“IDALIA will boast but of tenantless Shades,
“And the bi-forked Hill a mere Desart will be
“My Thunder, no fear on’t,
“Shall soon do it’s Errand,
“And, dam’me! I’ll swinge the Ringleaders I warrant,
“I’ll trim the young Dogs, for thus daring to twine
“The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS’S Vine.

4
APOLLO rose up; and said, “Pr’ythee ne’er quarrel,
“Good King of the Gods with my Vot’ries below:
“Your Thunder is useless_then, shewing his Laurel,
Cry’d. “Sic evitabile fulmen, you know!
“Then over each Head
“My Laurels I’ll spread
“So my Sons from your Crackers no Mischief shall dread,
“Whilst snug in their Club-Room, they Jovially twine
“The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS’S Vine.

5
Next MOMUS got up, with his risible Phiz,
And swore with APOLLO he’d cheerfull join_
“The full Tide of Harmony still shall be his,
“But the Song, and the Catch, & the Laugh shall bemine
“Then, JOVE, be not jealous
Of these honest Fellows,
Cry’d JOVE, “We relent, since the Truth you now tell us;
“And swear, by OLD STYX, that they long shall entwine
“The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS’S Vine.

6
Ye Sons of ANACREON, then, join Hand in Hand;
Preserve Unanimity, Friendship, and Love!
‘Tis your’s to support what’s so happily plann’d;
You’ve the Sanction of Gods, and the FIAT of JOVE.
While thus we agree
Our Toast let it be.
May our Club flourish happy, united and free!
And long may the Sons of ANACREON intwine
The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS’S Vine.

PotW.org provides this additional information:

sic evitabile fulmen roughly translates to “this repels thunderbolts” (It was a common
Roman belief that laurel provided protection from lightning.)

fusty = close or stuffy, old-fashioned, of stale wine
phiz = facial expression
risible = pertaining to laughter
swinge = beat, flog, or chastise

The Anacreontic Song was written for the Anacreontic Society. This London
gentlemen’s club was named after the Greek poet Anacreon (c. 570-485 BC),
who was known for his poems on love and wine. The words are credited to
Ralph Tomlinson (1744-1778), and the tune is commonly attributed to John
Stafford Smith (1750-1836). The tune is most famous for its use with Francis
Scott Key’s The Star Spangled Banner (the national anthem of the United
States.) The earlier political song Adams and Liberty also used the same tune.

So whenever you hear our illustrious national anthem being played, just keep in mind its melody’s not-so-illustrious origins!

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Responses

  1. Thanks, I learned a lot!

    “we owe the melody of our own national anthem to the very country our forebears fought to gain independence from.”

    Very appropriate since we weren’t rejecting our English culture & patrimony.

    Between the lyrics and the tune, we got the better of the two.

    • Yes, that’s right. Becoming independent of Great Britain didn’t mean we were rejecting our British heritage. And though Francis Scott Key’s poem has been criticized by some, it’s still more dignified than the drinking song version (though I get a kick out of that one too).

  2. Evan, I had heard that the melody was a drinking song, and the Anacreontic Society appears to be a club for young men devoted to drink. Interesting post.

    • Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet who wrote poems in praise of wine and love, so that club in London named themselves after him.

  3. Oh my, I didn’t know the history behind the Star Spangled Banner with the exception of it’s writer. Very interesting.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Yes, the song’s history is interesting–and probably surprising for a lot of people.

  4. Thanks for the lesson, Evan.
    I was listening to Francis Scott Key’s poem and low and behold there were more verses:
    “O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
    What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming?
    Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight,
    O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
    And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
    Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.
    O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

    On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep,
    Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
    What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
    As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
    Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
    In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
    ‘Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

    And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
    That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
    A home and a country should leave us no more?
    Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
    No refuge could save the hireling and slave
    From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

    O thus be it ever when free-men shall stand
    Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation;
    Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
    Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
    Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
    And this be our motto: “In God is our trust!”
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!]

    • Most people are only familiar with the first verse, as it’s not common to hear the complete song performed.


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