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The Star-Spangled Banner

"The Star-Spangled Banner" is the national anthem of the United States of America. The lyrics come from a poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, a then 35-year-old amateur poet who wrote "Defence of Fort McHenry after seeing the bombardment of Fort McHenry at Baltimore, Maryland, by Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812.

The poem was set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a London social club. "The Anacreontic Song" (or "To Anacreon in Heaven"), set to various lyrics, was already popular in the United States. Set to Key's poem and renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner", it would soon become a well-known American patriotic song. With a range of one and a half octaves, it is known for being difficult to sing. Although the song has four stanzas, only the first is commonly sung today, with the fourth ("O thus be it ever when free men shall stand ...") added on more formal occasions.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" was recognized for official use by the Navy in 1889 and the President in 1916, and was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931 (46 Stat. 1508, codified at ), which was signed by President Herbert Hoover.

Before 1931, other songs served as the hymns of American officialdom. Most prominent among them was "Hail, Columbia," which served as the de facto national anthem from Washington's time and through the 18th and 19th centuries. Following the War of 1812 and subsequent American wars, other songs would emerge to compete for popularity at public events, among them "The Star-Spangled Banner."


Early history of the lyrics

On September 3, 1814, Francis Scott Key and John S. Skinner, an American prisoner-exchange agent, set sail from Baltimore aboard the ship HMS Minden flying a flag of truce on a mission approved by President James Madison. Their objective was to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, the elderly and popular town physician of Upper Marlboro, and a friend of Key’s who had been captured in his home. Beanes was accused of aiding the arrest of British soldiers. Key and Skinner boarded the British flagship HMS Tonnant on September 7 and spoke with Major General Robert Ross and Admiral Alexander Cochrane over dinner, while they discussed war plans. At first, Ross and Cochrane refused to release Beanes, but relented after Key and Skinner showed them letters written by wounded British prisoners praising Beanes and other Americans for their kind treatment.

Because Key and Skinner had heard details of the plans for the attack on Baltimore, they were held captive until after the battle, first aboard HMS Surprise, and later back on the HMS Minden. After the bombardment, certain British gunboats attempted to slip past the fort and effect a landing in a cove to the west of it, but they were turned away by fire from nearby Fort Covington, the city's last line of defense.

During the rainy night, Key had witnessed the bombardment and observed that the fort’s smaller "storm flag" continued to fly, but once the shell and rocket barrage had stopped, he would not know how the battle had turned out until dawn. By then, the storm flag had been lowered, and the larger flag had been raised.

Key was inspired by the American victory and the sight of the large American flag flying triumphantly above the fort. This flag, with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, came to be known as the Star Spangled Banner Flag and is today on display in the National Museum of American History, a treasure of the Smithsonian Institution. It was restored in 1914 by Amelia Fowler, and again in 1998 as part of an ongoing conservation program.

Aboard the ship the next day, Key wrote a poem on the back of a letter he had kept in his pocket. At twilight on 16 September, he and Skinner were released in Baltimore. He finished the poem at the Indian Queen Hotel, where he was staying, and he entitled it "Defence of Fort McHenry."

Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson. Nicholson saw that the words fit the popular melody "To Anacreon in Heaven", an old British drinking song from the mid-1760s, composed in London by John Stafford Smith. Nicholson took the poem to a printer in Baltimore, who anonymously printed broadside copies of it the song’s first known printing on September 17; of these, two known copies survive.

On September 20, both the Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the song, with the note "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven". The song quickly became popular, with seventeen newspapers from Georgia to New Hampshire printing it. Soon after, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together under the title "The Star-Spangled Banner", although it was originally called "Defence of Fort McHenry." The song’s popularity increased, and its first public performance took place in October, when Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang sang it at Captain McCauley’s tavern.

The song gained popularity throughout the nineteenth century and bands played it during public events, such as July 4 celebrations. On July 27, 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy signed General Order #374, making "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that "The Star-Spangled Banner" be played at military and other appropriate occasions. Although the playing of the song two years later during the seventh-inning stretch of the 1918 World Series is often noted as the first instance that the anthem was played at a baseball game, evidence shows that the "Star-Spangled Banner" was performed as early as 1897 at opening day ceremonies in Philadelphia and then more regularly at the Polo Grounds in New York City beginning in 1898. However, the tradition of performing the national anthem before every baseball game began in World War II.Today, the anthem is performed before the beginning of all NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL games (with at least one American team playing), as well as in a pre-race ceremony portion of every NASCAR race.

On November 3, 1929, Robert Ripley drew a panel in his syndicated cartoon, Ripley's Believe it or Not!, saying "Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem. In 1931, John Philip Sousa published his opinion in favor, stating that "it is the spirit of the music that inspires" as much as it is Key’s "soul-stirring" words. By a law signed on March 3, 1931 by President Herbert Hoover, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was adopted as the national anthem of the United States.

Modern history

The first "pop" performance of the anthem heard by mainstream America was by Puerto Rican singer and guitarist Jose Feliciano. He shocked some people in the crowd at Tiger Stadium in Detroit and some Americans when he strummed a slow, bluesy rendition of the national anthem before game five of the 1968 World Series between Detroit and St. Louis. This rendition started contemporary "Star-Spangled Banner" controversies. The response from many in Vietnam-era America was generally negative, given that 1968 was a tumultuous year for the United States. Despite the controversy, Feliciano's performance opened the door for the countless interpretations of the "Star-Spangled Banner" heard today. One week after Feliciano's performance, the anthem was in the news again when two American athletes gave a raised-fist Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics while the "Star-Spangled Banner" played at a medal ceremony.

Marvin Gaye gave a funk-influenced performance at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game and Whitney Houston gave a soulful rendition before Super Bowl XXV in 1991, which was released as a single that charted at number 20 in 1991 and number 6 in 2001 (the only times the anthem has been on the Billboard Hot 100). Another famous instrumental interpretation is Jimi Hendrix's version which was a set-list staple from autumn 1968 until his death in September 1970. Incorporating sonic effects to emphasize the "rockets' red glare," "machine guns," "bombs bursting in air," it became a late-1960s emblem. Roseanne Barr gave a controversial performance of the anthem at a baseball game on July 25, 1990. The comedienne belted out a screechy rendition of the song, and afterward she attempted a gesture of ball players by spitting and grabbing her crotch as if adjusting a protective cup. The song and the closing routine offended many in the audience and, later, across the country after it was played on television.

In March 2005, a government-sponsored program, the National Anthem Project, was launched after a Harris Interactive poll showed many adults knew neither the lyrics nor the history of the anthem.


Additional Civil War period lyrics

During the Civil War, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was claimed by both the North and the South. At Fort Sumter, where the opening shot of the war was fired, this song was played when the American flag was lowered in token of surrender by the Federal forces. In indignation over this episode, Oliver Wendell Holmes added a fifth stanza to the song that appeared in northern editions of songbooks of the period. It was again played at the raising of the American flag following the reoccupation of Fort Sumter with the conclusion of this war.


United States Code, , states that during the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" (United States National Anthem) when the flag is displayed, everyone except those in uniform should stand at attention while facing the flag with their right hand over their heart. Those in attendance who are not in uniform should remove any headwear with their right hand and hold it at their left shoulder, with their right hand held over their heart. Individuals in uniform should show the military salute during the first note of the anthem and stay in this position until the last note. If the flag is not displayed, people in attendance should face the music and respond as if the flag were present.


As a result of immigration to the United States, the lyrics of the song were translated into other languages. In 1861, it was translated into German. It has since been translated into Hebrew, Yiddish by Jewish immigrants, French by Acadians of Louisiana, Samoan and Irish. The third verse of the anthem has also been translated into Latin.

Nuestro Himno

A Spanish-language recording of the "Star-Spangled Banner" called "Nuestro Himno" was released on April 28, 2006, a few days before nationwide amnesty demonstrations on May 1. This recording was created as a show of support for all illegal immigrants in the United States in response to a proposed crackdown on illegal immigration.

The first verse of "Nuestro Himno" ("Our Anthem") is very similar to a 1919 Spanish version by Francis Haffkine Snow called "La Bandera de Estrellas" ("The Flag of Stars"). The earlier translation was commissioned by the then-U.S. Bureau of Education, which was part of the Department of the Interior. This translation is on the United States Department of State's website. A reproduction of the original sheet music is on the Library of Congress website.

"Nuestro Himno" drew a critical response from President George W. Bush, who said that the national anthem should be sung in English. Despite this, the State Department had Spanish versions of the anthem posted online.


The song is notoriously difficult for nonprofessionals to sing, because of its wide range an octave and a half. Garrison Keillor has frequently campaigned for the performance of the anthem in the original key, G major, which can be managed by most average singers without difficulty (it is usually played in A-flat or B-flat). Humorist Richard Armour referred to the song's difficulty in his book It All Started With Columbus

In an attempt to take Baltimore, the British attacked Fort McHenry, which protected the harbor. Bombs were soon bursting in air, rockets were glaring, and all in all it was a moment of great historical interest. During the bombardment, a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner", and when, by the dawn's early light, the British heard it sung, they fled in terror

Professional and amateur singers have been known to forget the words, which is one reason the song is so often prerecorded and lip-synced. Other times the issue is avoided by having the performer(s) play the anthem instrumentally instead of singing it. This situation was lampooned in the comedy film The Naked Gun, as its star Leslie Nielsen, undercover as opera singer Enrico Pallazzo at a baseball game, made mincemeat of the lyrics. The prerecording of the anthem has become standard practice at some ballparks, such as Boston's Fenway Park, according to the SABR publication The Fenway Project

Musical references

The tune has been referenced in many other musical compositions.

  • The city of Philadelphia commissioned Richard Wagner to write a piece in honor of the centenary of U.S. independence. His American Centennial March uses a recurring allusion to "The Star-Spangled Banner" in its main theme.
  • The nineteenth-century American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk incorporated both "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Yankee Doodle" in his piano composition The Union.
  • Giacomo Puccini controversially used the opening phrases of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a theme for the character of Pinkerton in his opera Madama Butterfly.
  • The last of Leopold Godowsky's set of thirty piano pieces titled Triakontameron is "Requiem (1914–1918): Epilogue", which concludes with a full-blown romantic arrangement of the anthem.
  • The paraphrase of the first stanza is used in the score of American Panorama (1933) by Daniele Amfitheatrof.
  • The first verse of the George M. Cohan song, "The Yankee Doodle Boy", contains the line, "O, say, can you see / Anything about a Yankee that's a phony?"
  • The title tune of the 1960s musical Hair contains the lines (sung to the usual tune) "O, say, can you see / my eyes? If you can / then my hair's too short!"
  • In the musical 1776 the song "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" starts and ends with the beginning bars of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and begins with the lyrics "Oh say do you see what I see?"
  • The song is used in the multi-media performance piece "Home of the Brave" by artist/musician Laurie Anderson.
  • In Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical, Assassins (1991), the song Another National Anthem takes the first three notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and reverses them to form the opening vocal motif of the choruses.
  • E. E. Bagley's composition "National Emblem" incorporates a portion of "The Star-Spangled Banner".
  • Leon Russell's cover version of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" features him singing the first stanza in the style of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
  • Supertramp sax player John Helliwell played the first part of the song as part of his improvisational saxophone solo during "Fool's Overture" on the band's Even in the Quietest Moments... tour in 1977.
  • Rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix played his own iconic version of the song as part of his performance set list from August 16, 1968, to August 31, 1970. The most famous performance of his version, which included creating the simulated sounds of war (explosions, gunfire, etc.) on his guitar, was at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Hendrix's version has been covered by many famous rock groups such as Pearl Jam.
  • Bruce Kulick, former Kiss guitarist, performs the song on Kiss' Alive III album
  • The rock group Boston performs an instrumental version of the anthem on their greatest hits album titled "Star Spangled Banner/4th of July Reprise".
  • The American metal band Iced Earth performed an instrumental version as the opening track on their 2004 album "The Glorious Burden".
  • British composer Gordon Jacob quoted the final strains of the anthem in his 1954 wind ensemble composition, "Flag of Stars".

References in film and television

Several films have their titles taken from the song lyrics. These include two films entitled Dawn's Early Light (2000 and 2005); two made-for-TV features entitled By Dawn's Early Light (1990 and 2000); two films entitled So Proudly We Hail (1943 and 1990); a feature (1977) and a short (2005) entitled Twilight's Last Gleaming; and four films entitled Home of the Brave (1949, 1986, 2004 and 2006)

The 2002 movie The Sum of All Fears featured the second half of the fourth verse being sung instead of the first at a major football game.

In the film adaptation The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the song comprises a part of the dolphins' last message to man: "So long, and thanks for all the fish."

In The Naked Gun, main character Frank Drebin butchers the anthem before a baseball game while posing as fictitious opera singer Enrico Palazzo. Portions of his version include "And the glare! Bunch of the air!"

In 2006, in the Disney Channel show Hannah Montana, Miley Cyrus, who plays pop star Hannah Montana, forgets the words to the national anthem in "O Say, Can You Remember the Words?".



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