Thursday, January 30, 2014

To Be or Not:
Is “The Star-Spangled Banner” Really Based on an Old English Drinking Song?

by Mark Clague

As we approach the September 14, 2014, bicentennial of the United States national anthem, online resources about the anthem's history are multiplying. Such replication in the case of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is encouraging, but it also raises a concern when the sheer volume of information obscures reliable information.<1> Francis Scott Key's lyric may well be the nation's most frequently performed song, yet the remarkable and rich detail of its history is largely forgotten.

An internet search of the phrase “the Star Spangled Banner is a drinking song” offers some 50,000+ hits. Such postings rehearse a fun but irreverent reputation and one that cuts along but—in my view at least—ultimately across historical evidence. Mythology is most resilient when it has a grain or two of truth, and that is indeed the case with the tale of alcohol and “The Anacreontic Song.”

The Banner-as-drinking-song claim is based on the notion that the melody used by Key<2> for his 1814 lyric is taken from the “old English drinking song” called “To Anacreon in Heaven” (AKA simply “Anacreon” and, most precisely, “The Anacreontic Song”). This was the “Constitutional Anthem” of  the Anacreontic Society, a convivial amateur music and supper club that operated in London from 1766 until the early 1790s.<3> Certainly club members drank at meetings, and jolly good fun was vital to the society's fellowship and success. Yet, the implication of this tale of a star-spangled drinking song is rather that “The Anacreontic Song” was sung in London and early American pubs by enthused collectives of inebriated vocalists hoisting tankards of ale. Such an image, although celebrated on YouTube by a few vocal comedy troupes, runs counter to historical evidence of origin and use, and dead against the musical evidence provided by the song itself.

If the question is whether or not the tune encouraged spirited fellowship accompanied by wine and stronger libations, then yes, “Anacreon” can be considered a drinking song. If the question is whether its ultimate purpose was to accompany the consumption of alcohol, then the answer is surely no. It was rather the gentleman's club anthem of an aspiring music-and-supper society dedicated to art and fellowship. (Harpsichord accompaniment simply doesn't sound to advantage in a pub, anyway.)

Anacreontic Society members were drawn from an aspiring class of London society who could afford dues and had the leisure to attend their gatherings. According to contemporary accounts, these meetings were meant to be impressive society events “conducted under the influence of the strictest propriety and decorum.”<4> They were sufficiently decorous to have welcomed Haydn, who was entertained in January 1791 at the beginning of his first London sojourn. According to the London Times:
Mr. Haydn, from Vienna, was introduced to the meeting, for the first time, and received by Mr. Hankey, the President, with great civility. On entering the Concert room he was greatly applauded, and the band very opportunely played one of his charming concertos.<5>
Anacreontic Society meetings began not with boisterous song but with a two-hour instrumental concert of symphonies and chamber music, performed by hired professional musicians. The concert was followed by dinner and then several hours of singing, when catches, glees, and other songs were offered by a mixture of the more skilled club members and professional ringers. Other members made up the audience, likely participating in choruses and humorous banter with those on stage. Certainly alcoholic drinks were served, and it was not uncommon for society members to remain past midnight. Only men were members, and while some of London's music clubs regularly included women (e.g., the Catch Club), the presence of women at the Anacreontic Society was controversial, likely because of the discipline their presence required.

As their anthem, “The Anacreontic Song” was performed after dinner at every meeting to inaugurate the vocal festivities. It was sung not by the collective, but by a single, skilled tenor soloist. Its 1779 sheet music imprint includes keyboard accompaniment, likely rendered on the harpsichord. The featured tenor was sometimes the club's president (in the event he possessed the requisite skill) or more typically one of the regular professionals. The melody was thus conjured by its composer to permit a trained solo voice to command and impress the crowd, justifying its wide melodic compass of a twelfth and the high key of C major. (Its ceremonial role further explains why the tune is so difficult for groups of amateurs to sing today, as it was never intended for mass singing, but rather to enable an exceptional vocalist to show off in heroic style.)

Remarkably, the individual renditions were not infrequently noted by such papers as the Times. The soloist could be criticized for over-dramatizing the words, which suggests both that a standard of decorum was in force but also that communicating the lyric to heighten the tale of the club’s patronage by the Greek poet Anacreon and the god of music Apollo in compelling fashion was vital to the performance aesthetic. Club members sang the chorus in four-part harmony, thus repeating the last line of each stanza, and joined “hand-in-hand” (likely while singing along) to emphasize their fellowship in the final stanza. Possibly referencing the choral traditions of Greek drama, the collective's commentary here repeated and affirmed the lyrics delivered by the club's president or his stand in.

Drawing upon the talents of our student vocalists at the University of Michigan, led by my colleague Jerry Blackstone, we recorded a version of “The Anacreontic Song” for Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

For comparison, here is our performance of the first sheet music imprint of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in an 1814 arrangement by Thomas Carr based closely on “The Anacreontic Song.”

With lyrics by Ralph Tomlinson (1744–78) and music by one of the Society’s hired keyboardists John Stafford Smith (1750–1836), at that time a young but already award-wining composer of popular song, “The Anacreontic Song” was greatly successful from the first. Its popularity grew with the club, such that meetings would soon be attended by upwards of 200 members and guests. This allowed the organization to move its meetings to a prestigious restaurant on the Strand, and the  lyrics were updated to reflect the change. The song also escaped the bounds of society meetings to be parodied in London’s theatres and to accrue dozens of new lyrics both in Britain and, soon after, in the new United States that were printed and reprinted in newspapers and anthologized in songsters.<6>

Whatever the source of Key’s knowledge of the tune, it is likely that he experienced the melody in Maryland and the environs of the District of Columbia as an American patriotic tune used with various alternative lyrics at least since 1793 to articulate partisan debates, presidential politics, mourn George Washington’s death, and celebrate the Fourth of July. It is certain that Key knew the tune before he wrote his famous text, as he had previously created words for one other patriotic song using the melody: in December 1805 he wrote and sang “When the Warrior Returns” for a dinner party honoring two naval heroes, Commodore Stephen Decatur and Lieutenant Charles Stewart.

The Gritty Details

Today's reputation of “To Anacreon in Heaven” as a drinking song, upon which the United States national anthem is based, results from six nuances:
1. The concluding text of the song's chorus that always includes the phrase “the Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine,” plus the song's sixth and final verse which contains a toast to the club's future: “While thus we agree, / Our Toast let it be: / May our Club flourish happy, united, and free! / And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine / The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”

2. The name of the later, prestigious restaurant at which the club met, “the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand.” Initially the club met at the London Coffee-house.

3. Association with the often hedonistic poetry of Anacreon, at least as popularized in English, and the affiliated genre of light, humorous lyrics featuring women and wine, known generally as “Anacreontics.”

4. Other parody lyrics used for the tune, including “The New Bibo” and “Jack Oakum in the Suds,” both of which feature the cliché of a drunken sailor.

5. The 1920s debate over whether or not “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be named the country's official national anthem. Any association with alcohol was particularly damaging to the song's candidacy during this America’s prohibition era (1920–33), precisely when legislation naming the Banner the official United States anthem was being considered. Those against Key's song as anthem celebrated its “drinking song” ancestry.

6. The Internet's ability to share, repeat, and reinforce this reputation.
1. Rather than a pub, the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand was a fashionable restaurant with a large ballroom that entertained many of London's leading clubs and political associations. The prestige of the venue was such that the Society printed the restaurant's name on the 1779 souvenir sheet music imprint of its anthem, while the name of the composer was left off (presumably because he was a hired hand and not a member). The size and scale of the meetings required a large venue accustomed to hosting sizable gatherings and with felicitous acoustics, such that a ballroom could be set for an orchestral concert, with attendees retiring to another room for supper, while the main room was reset for an evening of song. Such a venue is a far cry from a pub.

2. In both musical style and lyrical content “Anacreontics” were meant to be enjoyable to sing and entertaining for listeners. Yet they aimed at convivial fellowship among an aspiring class consciousness, centered on the many musical clubs in London and beyond. Offshoots included Anacreontic Societies in New York and Baltimore. Anacreontics frequently invoke wine, but rarely grog or beer, and they recite literary elements of classical myth. Songs were first performed from manuscript and transmitted through a print culture of notated music and lyrics. Published in 1804 and 1805, the Baltimore Musical Miscellany was one such vehicle. It includes a parody of the “To Anacreon in Heaven” melody under the title “The Social Club.” First published in Edinburgh in 1792, the lyric is a celebration of self-improvement through musical fellowship. Like “The Anacreontic Song” its narrative takes place on Mount Olympus where Mercury reports on the activities of a singing society. Jove after viewing their work from above, offers this verse (which, of course, can be sung to the melody we now know as “The Star-Spangled Banner.):
Well pleas’d with the prospect thus spake mighty Jove—
“View you little band! link’d by friendship’s strong chain,
“Such merit assistance requires from above,
“Celestials!—your gifts they deserve to obtain;
“Let each god bestow,
“On these mortals below,
“The virtues most suitable for them to know,
“That, improving in knowledge, they at length may unite
“The study of wisdom with social delight.”<7>
3. The earliest references in print that I have found to the tune Anacreon as a drinking song do not appear until the later 19th c. and invoke not “The Anacreontic Song,” but two other 18th-century parodies of the melody that spoof military heroism: “Jack Oakum in the Suds” and the earlier and more frequently anthologized song “The New Bibo” (1789). While their humorous intent is clear, within the context of club meetings they may have functioned less as “drinking songs” than morality tales urging moderation. In each a British sailor dies from over indulgence and is propelled to the banks of the River Styx, where he encounters the ferryman Charon. Hijinx ensue, and in the case of Jack Oakum, the “old seaman” assumes Charon's job but requires payment in grog.
4. Temperance songsters from the 1840s through '60s, use the melody (referenced as “The Star Spangled Banner,” not “Anacreon”) for lyrics describing the social cost of drunkenness and, by implication, arguing by means of patriotic melody that the United States should ban alcohol. While it is possible temperance activists had a wicked sense of humor, it is more likely that they knew nothing of the melody's connections with alcohol.
More compelling than the question about whether the label “drinking song” is or is not accurately connected with “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the question of why the idea is so persistent and popular, especially today. Certainly the Internet facilitates the claim, but it's intriguing to consider that the idea is attractive because it reinforces aspects of American ideology while also counteracting certain troubling components of national identity. The notion of a populist drinking song transformed into the official national anthem of a global military, economic, and cultural Superpower fulfills desires of our national narrative—that an upstart and democratic people with a can-do “Yankee Doodle” spirit could rise above their elite European ancestors to transform a ragtag colony into a nation due international respect. Similarly, the anthem as drinking song narrative offers the image of an always unified, sonorous, and fun-loving people as substitute for the nation's more discordant history of struggle to find community across boundaries of race, class, ethnicity, and gender. In actuality, the dozens upon dozens of forgotten lyrics of patriotism and protest fundamental to the journey of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its melody from club anthem to patriotic victory song to national anthem tell a more motley, but engaging tale.
NOTE: Whether or not the average singer today might have better odds of hitting the Banner’s high notes after steeling him or herself with a brisk shot is a matter outside the bounds of this study.

Mark Clague is Associate Professor of Music, American Culture, and African American Studies at the University of Michigan, and editor-in-chief of the Gershwin Critical Edition.


1. See the online resources page of for informative links addressing the national anthem.

2. Another oft-repeated myth about the Banner is that someone other than Key matched the text of his “poem” to the Anacreontic melody. Research as well as common sense shows, however, that Key had the melody firmly in mind when he composed the text, which therefore should be considered at its inception to be a song lyric, not simply a poem. See the discussion of “When the Warrior Returns” below.

3. A detailed and thoroughly researched account of The Anacreontic Society is found in William Lichtenwanger’s The Music of 'The Star-Spangled Banner: From Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill (Library of Congress, 1977); reprinted from the July 1977 issue of the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress. Details throughout this essay are taken from Lichtenwanger, and it is this article that firmly establishes John Stafford Smith as the composer of “The Anacreontic Song.”

4. Lichtenwanger, p. 5, quoting Charles Morris et al., The Festival of Anacreon ... (7th edn., London: George Peacock, [1787]), pt. 1, pp. 6–7.

5. London Times, 24 January 1791, p. 2.

6. Richard S. Hill traces 85 lyrics using the melody of “The Anacreontic Song” in his 1951 article “The Melody of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ in the United States before 1820,” in Essays Honoring Lawrence C. Wroth (Portland, ME: The Anthoensen Press, 1951), pp. 151–93. Hill limits his exploration to songsters and thus misses examples printed only in newspapers. A definitive study tracing lyrics to the melody since 1820 remains to be completed.

7. “The Social Club” in the Baltimore Musical Miscellany, or, Columbian Songster (Baltimore: Cole and Hewes for S. Butler, 1805), Vol. 2, pp. 158–60.

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