The “Real Words” of our National Anthem

On this July Fourth I’d like to say a few words about the US national anthem. Many of you are no doubt aware that this year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the lyrics, written by Francis Scott Key as “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” Few people know that the song has four verses, because we seldom hear any but the first these days. Far fewer people are aware of the origin of the melody, a popular English drinking song from the 1700’s.

Yet another little-known fact is the controversy that surrounded the adoption of the song in 1931 as the nation’s official anthem. An article that appeared in the Daily Beast on last July 4th tells some of this fascinating story. The song has been the target of criticism for a melody that is difficult to sing (with a range of an octave and a fifth) and for its lyrics that celebrate militarism.

By the way, today’s history-challenged young people may not know the story behind the war that inspired Key’s poem. The War of 1812 was the nation’s first major war after the American colonies secession from the British Empire. In grade school I learned that this second war was Britain’s fault for restricting our trade with France and conscription of American sailors into the Royal Navy.

In junior high school I was fortunate to have a teacher named Frank Lewis, an offbeat-looking man (he wore coke-bottle glasses and a 50’s style pompadour) who helped inspire my own passion for history. In his class, we learned that another over-riding reason for the war was the desire of certain American politicians to violently annex British holdings in Canada (the southeast portion of the current country) and Florida. They were known as War Hawks, birds of prey with the distinctive cry, “Canada! Florida!” They got their war, which ended in a stalemate. At least 5000 American and British soldiers and sailors died and untold numbers of civilians, all for naught. It’s not a glorious episode in our history, which is why I prefer the original lyrics of the song.

Speaking of the original song, its creators were members of a London men’s club called the “Anacreon Society.” Anacreon was a poet from classical Greece whose works extolled the virtues of “wine, women and song.” As such these words are at least as appropriate for us Americans. Back in 1835, French writer Alexis de Toqueville observed that “the drinking population constitutes the majority in your country, and that temperance is somewhat unpopular.” Here without further adieu is the first verse of the famous “Anacreon in Heaven” (which you can listen to here):



as Sung at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand

Words by Ralph Tomlinson, music by John Stafford Smith


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.


Remember these words on this Fourth when you hear the line about the “land of the (formerly) free and the home of the (occasionally) brave.” And if you haven’t seen it, watch this clip of Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat singing the words of the fictional Kazakhstan national anthem to this tune for unsuspecting rodeo patrons. He was lucky he didn’t get himself lynched!


2 thoughts on “The “Real Words” of our National Anthem