As American cultural heritage goes, there may be nothing more American than our flag and national anthem. And on the Fourth of July, we’re acutely aware of that.
But if you look back at the history of Francis Scott Key’s now legendary tune, the actual melody has very un-American roots.
Francis Scott Key wrote the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” in 1814, while watching a terrifying battle. It was the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1812. A week earlier, the British had ransacked Washington, D.C. — burning the Capitol and President’s house to the ground.
It was a terrible site, and as the Smithsonian tells us, Key later said “It seemed as though mother earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone.” But as the smoke cleared (indeed the “dawn’s early light”) it was the American flag that flew above the wreckage, and not the Union Jack.
Key was watching about eight miles away on a ship, and wrote his poem as he witnessed the bombardment.
The poem became the now legendary “Star-Spangled Banner” and eventually began its reign as our national anthem. But it needed a melody. Interestingly enough, a very British tune ended up acting as the inspiration for the song we all know so well. Some experts think that because the rhyme scheme is so similar, Key had this in mind when he wrote the poem.
It’s called “The Anacreontic Song.” It was written by a man named John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society. The society was a men’s social club in London, and the tune was apparently sung at the beginning of their meetings.
Here’s a YouTube clip of “The Anacreontic Song,” so you can see the similarities for yourself:
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