Friday, September 17, 2010
The Star-Spangled Banner
On September 3, 1814, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner set sail from Baltimore aboard the ship HMS Minden, flying a flag of truce on a mission approved by President James Madison to secure the exchange of prisoners. Key and Skinner boarded the British flagship HMS Tonnant on September 7 and spoke with Major General Robert Ross and then-Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane over dinner while the two officers discussed war plans.
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 HMS Minden. During the bombardment of Fort McHenry, Key noted that the fort’s smaller storm flag continued to fly, but during the night, 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.
Key's poem was set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London. 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. (That is an understatement.)
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that The Star-Spangled Banner be played at military and other appropriate occasions. The anthem was performed as early as 1897 at opening day ceremonies for a baseball game 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.
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 of The Star-Spanled Banner, 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 official national anthem of the United States.