“The Star Spangled Banner” has been the official U.S. National Anthem since 1931 and is commonly heard today before sporting events and other patriotic gatherings. The lyrics – at least those to the first verse – have become ingrained in America’s culture, as much as apple pie and baseball. For many, it’s the only thing to come out of the War of 1812 that still resonates today, over 200 years after it was written by Francis Scott Key at Forth McHenry as the British attacked.
Here’s a look at the history of the anthem.
1. Key First Wrote the Anthem Under the Title ‘Defense of Fort M’Henry’
Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) was a lawyer and poet who witnessed the Battle of Baltimore in September 1814, during the War of 1812 against the British. The battle was a major victory for the Americans and Key was inspired by Fort McHenry, which stood against the Royal Navy bombardment. Key was hoping to complete a prisoner exchange when he saw the battle from the ship he was on.
On September 14, 1814, the fort raised the large “Star Spangled Banner” flag, which inspired Key so much that he wrote a poem on whatever he could find. Thankfully, he had a letter in his pocket. On the other side, he wrote Defense of Fort M’Henry, which later became “The Star Spangled Banner” that we all know.
2. Key Wrote Four Verses, Not Just One
While the only verse of “The Star Spangled Banner” performed today is the first, Key actually wrote four that went on to describe the scene at Fort McHenry. Each verse ends with the familiar line “O’er the land of the free and home of the brave.”
The song’s tune is derived from the tune for “Anacreon in Heaven” by John Stafford Smith. Although Key was a poet, he always intended for “The Star Spangled Banner” to be accompanied by music, notes History.com. In fact, Key had used the “Anacreon in Heaven” tune for an 1805 poem.
Here’s all four verses, via The Smithsonian:
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 through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through 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 through 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 in 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 footstep’s 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 freemen 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 power 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.
3. It Took 40 Tries for Congress to Finally Name it the Official National Anthem
Amazingly, Congress took a long time to finally approve “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. President Woodrow Wilson did issue an executive order in 1916, just before the U.S. entered World War I, to have the song played at military events.
Beginning in 1918, Maryland Congressman John Charles Linthicum introduced bills to get “The Star Spangled Banner” the official designation, but it failed. It wasn’t until 1931 that the House and Senate finally passed a bill. President Herbert Hoover signed it into law in March 1931.
4. There’s No Punishment for Not Putting Your Hand Over Your Heart
The law that made the song the national anthem is full of suggestions on how to behave during the anthem. Members of the military “should” give the military salute during the entirety of the song. Everyone else “should” stand at attention in the direction of the U.S. flag and men “should” remove their hat to put it over their heart. These rules also surfaced in the 1923 Flag Code. However, the code has no punishment for breaking these rules, ABC News reported in 2012.
Still, ignoring these rules can raise eyebrows, especially when a politician does it. In 2008, before Barack Obama was elected president, he infamously didn’t put his hand over his heart. He later said at a town hall that his grandfather always told him that you sing during the anthem and put your hand over your heart during the Pledge of Allegiance.
5. The National Anthem Is Really Difficult to Sing
This shouldn’t be news to any professional singer who has tried to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” but it is really tough to sing. That’s probably why even Beyonce lip-synced at Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.
According to the National Museum of American History, it’s difficult to perform because of the tune’s wide range and high notes.
“High f—it’s traditionally sung in Bb major because going higher than that makes it hard for the altos and basses singing to get to the high note, and going lower makes it hard for the tenors and sopranos to manage,” Kenneth Slowik, the Director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society, told the museum.
“Probably, it’s best to be sung the way it was originally intended, that is to be sung as the Anacreontic Song, that is to say, a traditional British Gentleman’s Club song—where you can really belt out the top,” Slowick suggested.