This song is the national anthem of the United States. The poem that formed the basis of the lyrics was penned in 1814 during the War of 1812 by Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old lawyer who was sent to negotiate with the British in an attempt to gain the release of an American prisoner they were holding. On September 7, Key reached the British fleet and after a few days of negotiations, secured the release of the prisoner. However, the British planned to attack Baltimore and would not release the Americans until after the battle.
On September 13, the British launched a fierce bombardment of Fort McHenry
in Baltimore that lasted throughout the night, an event Key witnessed from the deck of a US truce ship. The next morning (in the "dawn's early light") Key saw the Americans take down the battle-torn US flag at the fort and replace it with a larger one.
This inspired him to write down notes for his famous poem, which he finished upon his return to Baltimore the evening of the 16th. Key later described the event: "Through the clouds of the warthe stars of that banner still shone in my view, and I saw the discomfited host of its assailants driven back in ignominy to their ships. Then, in he hour of deliverance, and joyful triumph, my heart spoke; and 'Does not such a country and such defenders of their country deserve a song?' was its question." (Thanks to the folks at the Fort McHenry national monument for providing this information.)
Key's poem was published on September 17, 1814, the day after he returned to Baltimore. The poem was sung to the music of a popular British drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven" (also known as "The Anacreontic Song"), which has been attributed to John Stafford Smith.
Before 1931, the US National Anthem was "My Country 'Tis Of Thee."
"The Star Spangled Banner" was recognized for official use by the United States Navy in 1889 and the White House in 1916. It got more attention when it was played during the seventh-inning stretch at Game 1 of the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. World War I was raging on, and when the band at the ballpark played the song, the players faced the flag and stood at attention. The fans did likewise, and this ritual was repeated for the rest of the Series. In ensuing years, the song was often played at baseball games as a show of patriotism. The song gained supporters, and on March 3, 1931 it was made the US National Anthem by a Congressional resolution.
The flag that was raised over Fort McKenry on September 16, 1814 is considered the Star Spangled Banner. It measures 42 by 30 feet and was made by Mary Pickersgill. The American officers wanted a huge flag so that the British would have no trouble seeing it in the distance and know that the Americans were not defeated. The flag is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
The song is hard for amateurs to sing, because of its extended vocal-range requirements. And among the professional singers who have the vocal finesse and range to "nail" all of the high notes, many often forget or stumble over the lyrics - one reason why the song is frequently prerecorded and lip-synched for public performances.
The song consists of four verses, but it is very rare to hear any but the first performed. The third verse contains a line that has caused some controversy:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave
Mark Clague, and expert on the song at the University of Michigan, explained to The New York Times: "The reference to slaves is about the use, and in some sense the manipulation, of black Americans to fight for the British, with the promise of freedom. The American forces included African-Americans as well as whites."
The fourth verse mentions "freemen," who were freed slaves. Clague sees this as celebration of their wartime contributions:
O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov'd home and the war's desolation
A line in the rarely heard third verse really sticks it to the British:
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footstep's pollution
America and England became allies during World War I, so this verse was often left out of sheet music publications.
Like the British national anthem "God Save The Queen
," the song is one of the few national anthems of the world without a country's name mentioned in the lyrics.
In the 1800s, many variations of this song appeared with the lyrics altered to push a social or political agenda. By the next century, any change to the lyrics was considered sacrilege.
And while the lyrics rarely changed, starting in the 1960 the performance styles did, with musicians finding many different ways to present the song. This coincided with audiences weighing in with applause, often cheering more heartily from more grandiose renditions.
In the US, this is played before most professional sporting events. Many famous and not-so-famous musicians have performed it before football, basketball, hockey and baseball games. Sometimes kids sing it, and celebrities are occasionally asked to sing it with disastrous results. Sprinter Carl Lewis did a painfully bad version, but perhaps no version of the song has generated more ill-will than comedian Roseanne Barr's version sung at a San Diego Padres-Cincinnati Reds doubleheader in July of 1990. It launched more than patriotic fireworks... it generated a veritable firestorm of truculent criticism.
Barr's version was called "disgraceful" by then-President George Bush and dubbed "The Barr-Strangled Banner" by the press. More than 25,000 fans heard her attempted belt out of the song transformed into a screeching, horrible performance. When they booed and jeered, Roseanne added insult to comedic injury by grabbing her crotch and spitting onto the field in a misguided attempt to imitate what ballplayers do. The fans didn't think it was funny at all. The San Diego Padres switchboard lit up with more than 1,000 angry calls, and Roseanne reportedly received multiple death threats owing to her disastrous rendition.
At the original Woodstock in 1969, Jimi Hendrix did a famous performance of this song. He was the last act of the festival and was scheduled to close the show on Sunday night, but he didn't take the stage until 8 a.m. Monday morning. Of about 500,000 people who were there over the weekend, only about 30,000 were left, and many of them remember waking up to this song. Jimi did an extended version on his guitar which was very unorthodox and caused some controversy among people who felt he was desecrating the song. He had been playing this version for about a year, beginning as part of a guitar solo he played during "Purple Haze
." When he played southern states in the US, he was often warned not to play it because the locals made threats against him, but Jimi always played it anyway. He tried to record his version for an album, but was never happy with the results in the studio. After he died, engineer Eddie Kramer mixed a version from Jimi's studio takes which was released on the album Rainbow Bridge
, but his Woodstock performance is by far his most famous version of the song.
Hendrix' version can be seen as an anti-war song about the situation in Vietnam. Halfway through the song, Hendrix imitates the sounds of bombs dropping, machine gun fire and people singing. His version was the first song played when a propaganda radio station called "Radio Hanoi" went on the air broadcasting to American troops serving in Vietnam in an effort to destroy their morale and convince them to desert.
Euan - Lanark, Scotland
A controversial Spanish-language version, "Nuestro Himno," was released on April 28, 2006, just days before nationwide immigration-law reform demonstrations on May 1, 2006. Public reaction was divided. "I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English," said President George W. Bush.
"Nuestro Himno" is not the first Spanish-language version of the The Star-Spangled Banner to have been published. The United States Department of State's website shows other Spanish-language versions of it, including "Himno nacional - La Bandera de Estrellas," copyrighted in 1919. Another multilingual version was released on May 16, 2006: performing as Voices United for America, 10 singers performed the song in Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Bulgarian, German, Arabic, Japanese, Tagalog, Korean, and English. The song was recorded to raise awareness of House Resolution 793, which states that the National Anthem should be sung only in English.
Other notable moments in Star Spangled Banner history:
October 7, 1968: Jose Feliciano sings a slow, jazzy version
at Tiger Stadium before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. It was the first time artistic liberties were taken with the song preceding a major sporting event, and it created a huge controversy. Many Americans felt he defiled the song, and by extension, America, but Feliciano - a native of Puerto Rico - explained that he was simply expressing his love for the United States with feeling. His performance was released as a single and reached #50.
February 13, 1983: Marvin Gaye's soulful rendition
at the 1983 NBA All-Star game the year before his death. Back in 1968, Gaye sang the National Anthem at Game 4 of the World Series - the game before Feliciano. Gaye was asked to keep the "Motown Influence" to a minimum, and sang that one straight, but at the All-Star Game, held at the Los Angeles Forum (where the Lakers played), Gaye walked out to a beat - a major departure from tradition. Gaye put the arrangement together with his musical director Gordon Banks that weekend, and showed up at the Forum shortly before the performance. Lakers management feared for the backlash, but the fans in attendance cheered wildly. This version was the first song played on VH1 when the network went on the air on January 1, 1985.
January 27, 1991: Whitney Houston's performance at the 1991 Super Bowl when the US was battling the first Gulf War. Her performance was lip-synched, but was released as a single and sold about 750,000 copies, reaching #20 on the Hot 100 (the first version to chart since Feliciano's). Houston's rendition was re-released in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, this time charting at #6.
May 27, 2001: Steven Tyler changes the words from "home of the brave" to "home of the Indianapolis 500" at the 2001 race. The ad-lib didn't go over well and Tyler apologized.
In the Disney/Pixar movie Cars
, a funny scene recurs when an an army Jeep raises a flag in the morning to this tune, while next door a hippy micro-bus plays the Jimi Hendrix version.
Mike - Mountlake Terrace, WA
A 2004 Harris Interactive survey showed that 61% of Americans don't know all of the words to the song. Of those who claim to know all the words, only 39 percent know what comes after "Whose broad stripes and bright stars" ("Through the perilous fight").
When the survey was repeated in 2008, it revealed that 67% of Americans know all the words to this song, up from 61% in 2004. Folks in the Midwest and Northeast were more likely to know the words.
The song has charted three times, all from performances at sporting events. Jose Feliciano's version checked in at #50 in 1968, Whitney Houston's made #20 in 1991, and Faith Hill's performance from the Super Bowl in 2000 reached #118.
Billy Joel sang this at the 1989 Super Bowl, and when asked about the experience in a 1998 interview with Uncut, he said: "It was OK. Between you and me, it's not a very good song, nobody can hit the high notes. They asked me to do it, and I thought it was a good way of getting Super Bowl tickets."
Surprisingly, Joel sang it again for the 2007 game.