The National Anthem Was Set to the Tune of a British Drinking Song

Direct your frustration in hitting the high notes across the pond.

National Journal

Even before Congress declared "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official anthem of the United States in 1931, its complicated melody and soaring pitches were controversial.

The composition, argued the Music Supervisors National Conference in 1930 (now the National Association for Music Education), "was too difficult a musical composition to be rendered properly by schoolchildren, informal gatherings and public meetings where the singing of the national anthem [is] appropriate," according to a 1930 New York Times article.

Although Francis Scott Key penned the words in 1814 during the War of 1812, the melody is actually much older. It's based off an 18th-century British pub song called "To Anacreon in Heaven." That's right: a song to be sung whilst drunk. Listen here (audio, and inspiration for this post, via the National Museum of American History).

The song had been the de facto anthem since President Wilson ordered it played at military events. But many were not happy with merely codifying what had become complacency. A 1927 New York Times editorial, "Wanted, A National Anthem," voiced the common concerns. (Find more historical Times shade-throwing here.)

Both the words and the tune of that song are admittedly unsuitable for the purpose of a national anthem; and their acceptance is a strange instance of the hit-or-miss fashion in which a national anthem is sometimes made. The verses by Francis Scott Key describe a comparatively unimportant incident of the War of 1812.

It then goes on to explain why "To Anacreon in Heaven" is an unsuitable melody:

It is too elaborate in structure for a popular anthem, and is likewise of such a wide compass as to be singable by a mixed assembly only with some difficulty.

The Times preferred a song that could be more easily sung in "a fit of enthusiasm" — although, if a drinking song isn't meant to be sung in fits of enthusiasm, what is?

Many patriotic songs in the American playlist have origins in recycled tunes. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has its melodic roots in a folk song, "John Brown's Body." "My Country Tis of Thee" is a direct rip of "God Save the Queen," the British national anthem. This historical remixing underscores a sense of America as a melting pot, that old ideas turn new (although sometimes that appropriation is for the worse).

"The Star-Spangled Banner" may be tough to sing, but when it's sung correctly, it makes for a transcendent, powerful moment.