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July 2015
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Why the American National Anthem Isn’t Even American



Yup. You read that correctly. The American National Anthem isn’t American. Well, it has become American. But ironically, the tune to “The Star Spangled Banner” is actually a British pub ballad. How did a drinking song that originated in the country from which America sought its independence travel across the pond and become our National Anthem?

From Beer Ballad to Battle Cry 

The tune that later became “The Star Spangled Banner” was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club of amateur musicians founded in 1766. The Society was one of several “gentleman’s clubs” in England at the time which arose, in part, out of nascent coffee house culture, and the first meetings were held at the London Coffee House, on Ludgate Hill. There, barristers, doctors, and merchants, and others who were members, could gather to conduct business, discuss politics, and make merry. The Anacreontic Society’s meetings were devoted, according to one contemporary account, to “wit, harmony, and the god of wine.” With a particular emphasis on cultivating music, the Society put on concerts. Even Joseph Haydn stopped one of their meetings in 1791.

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This musical “members only” club needed an official song. One of the Society’s presidents, Ralph Tomlinson, wrote the lyrics while John Stafford Smith, an early collector of the works of J.S. Bach, composed the melody. “The Anacreontic Song” is an ode to their Society’s namesake: the Greek poet Anacreon, who wrote poems about women and wine to entertain his patrons. “The Anacreontic Song,” also known by its incipit “To Anacreon in Heaven,” was always performed at meetings. One eyewitness, Richard John Samuel Stevens, reported in 1777:

The Evenings entertainment began at seven O Clock, with a Concert, chiefly of instrumental Music; it was not very uncommon to have some Vocal Music interspersed with the Instrumental… At ten O Clock the Instrumental Concert ended, when we retired to the Supper rooms. After Supper, having sung “Non nobis Domine” we returned to the Concert Room, which in the mean time had been differently arranged. The President, then took his seat in the center of the elevated table, at the upper end of the room, supported on each side, by the various Vocal performers. After the Anacreontic Song had been sung, in the Chorus of the last verse of which, all the Members, Visitors, and Performers, joined, “hand in hand,” we were entertained by the performance of various celebrated Catches, Glees, Songs, Duettos, and other Vocal, with some Rhetorical compositions, till twelve O Clock. Richard John Samuel Stevens

“The Anacreontic Song” became immensely popular both in England and across the pond, in the United States. Because the tune is so simple and relatively memorable, the music could easily be taught by ear and transmitted orally, even to those who did not read music. What was more important to distribute to popularize a song were the words. The song circulated widely through a kind of oversized, printed sheet of lyrics called a broadside. Broadsides were some of the most widely distributed media in the 17th and 18th centuries, and usually indicated what the music was through the simple performance instruction “Sung to the tune of…..” This allowed songs to be distributed quickly, since lyricists could capitalize on already popular tunes, in some instances, to ironic effect.



Francis Scott Key’s poem the “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” written in 1814 during the Battle of Fort McHenry, received its musical setting as “The Star-Spanled Banner” in the same manner as broadside ballads. The poem was printed by the Baltimore Patriot and The American with the performance indication “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven.” The pairing was so popular that soon one music publisher, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore, published them together, titling the work “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Making it “Official”

“The Star-Spangled Banner” quickly gained popularity, and was recognized for official use by the United States Navy in 1889. But like any popular song, it circulated in many versions. By 1904, even Puccini had used a snatch of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in one of his operas, Madama Butterfly, for “Dovunque al mondo.”

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson sought to standardize the song. The U.S. Bureau of Education called upon none other than John Philip Sousa and four others, Walter Damrosch, Will Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonneck, to come up with a standard arrangement. Their new, standardized version premiered at Carnegie Hall on December 5, 1917 in a concert by the Oratorio Society of New York, led by Walter Damrosch.

In 1931, a congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover declared “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be the National Anthem of the Unite States of America. Previously, other tunes served as the de-facto anthem, including “My Country, ‘Tis of Three” (which ironically also borrows its melody from a British tune, “God Save the Queen).

Ornamentation and American Individualism

Even though “The Star-Spangled Banner” has become the official National Anthem of the United States and attempts were made to standardize the tune, no single version of exists. When it is performed, it is performed in many keys. Sometimes it is performed in a duple meter, such as 4/4 time, sometimes in a triple meter, such as 3/4. Sometimes, arrangers use multiple time signatures, beginning in one and ending in another. The song has been arranged in a variety of styles for countless combinations of instruments and voices of all kinds. And, of course, no singer ornaments the song in the same way. Making the song “one’s own” through individualistic embellishments is as American as apple pie.

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27: Whitney Houston sings the National Anthem before a game with the New York Giants taking on the Buffalo Bills prior to Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium on January 27, 1991 in Tampa, Florida. The Giants won 20-19. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Jimi Hendrix’s version for solo guitar at Woodstock in 1969 took on particularly political overtones. He added distortion during the section of the melody that sets the text “and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” as a comment on contemporary civil and political unrest. Some consider Whitney Houston’s performance of the National Anthem before the Super Bowl XXV in 1991 to be one of the most iconic renditions.

We can learn a lot about popular styles of vocal ornament by comparing two different performances of the Anthem, especially performances by iconic musicians at prominent civic and political events. Let’s compare two performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by one of America’s most beloved pop divas, Beyoncé. We can compare her recent performance at the 2013 President Inauguration of Barack Obama and her earlier performance at the 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII.

First, let’s look at her Super Bowl XXXVIII performance.

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Her version, which starts in 4/4 time, is relatively straight-forward until she adds some triplets on the words “hail’d” and “gleaming.” Throughout her rendition, she adds other triplet rhythms, occasionally to add syncopations, as she does on the words “the bombs,” to emphasize them.

The first lengthy melisma she adds is on the word “air,” though previously she has inserted plenty of grace notes, including appoggiaturas (notes suspended from above) and acciaccaturas (notes suspended from below). The melisma on “O,” of “O! say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave,” is particularly strikingly because the sweet sounding pentatonics she uses in the lick. Then, the time signature changes to 3/4 for a few measures. During this phrase, she adds a lengthy melismatic ornament on the word “wave,” using gentle triplets and plenty of grace notes to illustrate the waving of the Banner itself.

But, the most impressive vocal fireworks come at the end on the words, “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” On the word “free,” she could have stayed on the note D, but decides to take it up a fourth to increase the intensity. But, the most intense musical and dramatic moment comes at the end on the word “brave.” Beyoncé adds a cadenza that sounds impressive, adding blue notes (Bb and Eb) and quick turns as she ascends the scale from G to G.


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How does her Superbowl performance compare to her performance at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration? The main differences between Beyoncé’s two performances are 1) that 2004 performances is more highly ornamented and 2) that the 2004 performance is a full three-steps higher than the 2013 performance, each sung in G major and E major respectively.

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Even a superficial glance comparing a transcription of the two performances reveals that her Super Bowl performance was more flamboyant and individualistic. She turns down some of the vocal fireworks for the Inauguration, a more staid and solemn affair than the Super Bowl, which in 2004, took place in her hometown of Houston.

There are still some things between her two versions that remain the same. Beyoncé seems to like pentatonic licks. She used one on “O” in the Super Bowl performance, and three during her performance at the Inauguration: one on the word “proof,” one on the “O,” and one in at the end of her embellishment on the word “wave.” But, she uses far fewer triplet figures, and far fewer grace notes throughout the rendition she gave at the Inauguration.

Finally, we notice that her cadenzas on “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave,” are very different. In her performance at the Inauguration, she still takes “free” up a fifth. Though of course, she’s already singing this at a lower pitch than she did during the Super Bowl, so it doesn’t sound quite as impressive. Disappointingly, her cadenza on the word “brave” seems boring compared to the one she sang at the Super Bowl. It doesn’t ascend as high, there are no turns, and most significantly, there are no blue notes.

Beyonce Inauguration.mus


So, by comparing these two versions, we can tell that today’s pop divas love triplets, they love adding grace notes like appoggiaturas and acciaccaturas for expressive effect, and they especially love pentatonics and blue notes.

What are your favorite renditions of the National Anthem?


  • dsliesse

    Strong preference to those who perform it straight, in 3. I don’t mind minor alterations to the harmonies, or even a change of key (the reason most people can’t sing it is that B-flat is too high for them), but dammit, it is not a performance piece! Treat it with respect, even if it did start as a drinking song!

  • ELBSeattle

    The thing that drives me crazy about vocal ornamentation is when it is done on a word like ‘the.’ In my mind, ornamentation is best reserved for important words.

  • My favourite is Renée Fleming’s Super Bowl performance: simple, elegant, no mistakes–and sung by the best soprano alive today. Regardless of the anthem (The Star-Spangled Banner, O Canada–I’m a Canuck–etc.), I prefer an anthem to be done simply, with as little ornamentation as possible: it’s a national song, not a coloratura aria.

  • Gloria Hopewell

    I thought Jose Feliciano created a kerfuffel with his rendition back in the 60s.