The Origins of 6 Great American Songs

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Every school-aged kid learns that Francis Scott Key penned the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" while watching the British navy pound Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Is there any more to the story, though? What about the other patriotic songs we belt out to honor our country? Here's a look at the stories behind some of America's most flag-waving tunes.

1. "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER"

Yes, Key wrote the lyrics while watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, but your teachers probably didn't tell you the origins of the music. The anthem takes its melody from "To Anacreon in Heaven," a British drinking song sung by members of London's Anacreontic Society. Key originally called his poem "Defence of Fort M'Henry," but the name changed to "The Star-Spangled Banner" when sheet music for the tune became available.

The song didn't immediately catch on as the national anthem, either. Although the patriotic tune was popular, it didn't become the national anthem until Congress gave it the official nod in 1931. Prior that, the U.S. had not had an official national anthem, although "Hail, Columbia" often played the part at ceremonies.

2. "HAIL, COLUMBIA"

Composed by German immigrant Philip Phile, this march was first written in honor of George Washington's 1789 inaugural inauguration. A few years later, in 1798, Joseph Hopkinson added lyrics and the song was debuted anew at a benefit concert in Philadelphia. It quickly caught on and became the country's unofficial national anthem. It is less familiar to modern audiences, but it still makes official appearances—it's played for the Vice President's entrance in the same way "Hail to the Chief" is played for the President.

3. "MY COUNTRY, 'TIS OF THEE"

The words to this old favorite date back to 1831, when Samuel Francis Smith wrote them while he was studying at Andover Theological Seminary. Smith started writing lyrics at the request of his friend Lowell Mason, a well-known organist, who needed some help adapting tunes he'd found in some German music books.

The two friends decided they really liked one of the songs in the German text, so Smith banged out the familiar lyrics to "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." Smith and Mason probably didn't know it since they were working from the German translation, but their new song actually shared its melody with the British national anthem, "God Save the King." Despite the odd British ties, the song was a hit after its 1831 debut at Boston's Park Street Church.

4. "AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL"

Katharine Lee Bates likely didn't know she was going to write what would become one of the country's most beloved songs when she visited Colorado in 1893 for a lecture tour. Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley, became particularly interested in the Rockies, so she wrote a poem entitled "Pike's Peak." These words are what we now think of as the lyrics of "America the Beautiful." The poem first appeared in print in the weekly newspaper The Congregationalist in 1895, and in 1904 Bates made some slight tweaks for a revised publication in The Boston Evening Transcript.

The poem became so popular that people around the country started singing it to whatever melody they could fit the words, including "Auld Lang Syne." The melody we know actually dates back to 1882, when Newark choirmaster Samuel Augustus Ward wrote it for a song called "Materna." The melody and lyrics first started appearing together in 1910, and by 1926 Ward's music and Bates' words were pretty much permanently joined as "America the Beautiful."

5. "YANKEE DOODLE"

No one's quite sure exactly when "Yankee Doodle" first appeared, but credit for writing the lyrics usually goes to Dr. Richard Shuckburgh, a British army doctor who served in the French and Indian War. According to the story, Shuckburgh watched the ragtag, disheveled colonial militias fight alongside the orderly, dapper British forces and wrote the lyrics to mock the colonists. ("Doodle" is an archaic term for a bumpkin, simpleton, or rube.)

It's not clear when the colonists decided to steal the British troops' derisive ditty and use it as a march of their own, but it's suggested that both sides sang the song at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the British to mock their foes and the Americans to rally their forces.

6. "HAIL TO THE CHIEF"

The song that means the President's about to arrive can be traced back to a Scottish poem. Sir Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake," a narrative poem first published in 1810, contains the words "Hail to the chief who in triumph advances! Honored and blessed be the ever-green pine!" The poem became such a runaway hit that various theater companies started producing Scott's narrative for the stage.

One of these theatrical productions made its debut in Philadelphia in 1812. This version borrowed songs from some of the London adaptations of the poem, including James Sanderson's tune "Hail to the Chief." The song became quite popular, and in 1815 it was played to honor the late George Washington.

In 1829 Andrew Jackson became the first president to be honored with a playing of the song, but we really have John Tyler's wife, Julia, and James K. Polk's wife, Sarah, to thank for the association of the song with the presidency. Mrs. Tyler made the first request that the song be played to herald the chief executive's arrival at events. When Polk succeeded Tyler, Sarah Childress Polk took an even firmer stance, stating that "Hail to the Chief" should accompany her husband to official events, and the tradition took off. (Contrary to popular belief, the song was not written for James Madison, our shortest president, whose arrival—according to legend—often went unnoticed, thus necessitating a theme song of sorts.)

This story originally ran in 2009.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

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pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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10 Things You Need to Know About 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

The actual star-spangled banner is displayed at the National Museum of American History.
The actual star-spangled banner is displayed at the National Museum of American History.
National Museum of American History, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1814, Francis Scott Key saw the tattered remains of the American flag still blowing in the breeze after Maryland's Fort McHenry had been bombarded by the British navy all night. Here are a few facts about Key's poem (yes, poem) that we know as the American national anthem today.

1. There really is a specific star-spangled banner.

It's the actual flag Francis Scott Key saw when he was watching Fort McHenry in Baltimore being bombarded during the War of 1812. His tale goes just like the song: after gunfire and rain all night, the flag was still standing when the sun rose. Inspired, Key wrote down what he was feeling—but when he wrote it, it was simply a poem called “Defense of Fort McHenry.” It became a song when Key’s brother-in-law discovered the poem perfectly fit the tune of a popular song called “The Anacreontic Song” (see #3).

Although the song was played at public events and on patriotic occasions from that point on, it wasn’t officially named as the national anthem until after Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe it or Not! noted in his cartoon that “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem.” John Philip Sousa rallied for "The Star-Spangled Banner" to become the new national anthem, and on March 3, 1931, Herbert Hoover signed a law making it so.

The actual star-spangled banner that Key observed is now displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

2. There were other contenders for the national anthem besides "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Other candidates included “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Hail Columbia,” and “America the Beautiful.”

3. The national anthem's tune is based on a drinking song.

Before it was a national anthem, the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner" belonged to a popular British drinking song. The anthem takes its melody from “The Anacreontic Song” or “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a British drinking song sung by members of London’s Anacreontic Society.

4. Francis Scott Key wrote alternate lyrics for "The Star-Spangled Banner."

One version of the lyrics, handwritten by Francis Scott Key himself in 1840, changes the version we all know so well. It’s a subtle change, though: "Whose bright stars and broad stripes, through the perilous fight" was written as "Whose bright stars and broad stripes, through the clouds of the fight.” This version is now housed in the Library of Congress.

5. The lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are surprisingly difficult to remember.

It’s a hard song to sing musically because it stretches vocals an octave and a half, but it’s apparently a hard song to remember lyrically as well—at least for some people. In 1965, Robert Goulet sang the national anthem before the big Sonny Liston-Muhammad Ali fight. The crowd wanted to fight him, however, when he botched the lyrics right from the start: “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early night.”

"I walked into that town and I was a hero. Then the fight lasted a minute and half and I walked out of town and I was a bum," he said.

In 2009, Jesse McCartney was asked to sing the famous song before the NASCAR Pepsi 500. He went right from “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,” to “Whose broad stripes and bright stars." McCartney chalked it up to stage fright.

6. A fifth stanza was added to "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the Civil War.

It’s little known today, but it appeared in songbooks and sheet music in 1861. It goes like this:

When our land is illumined with liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained,
Who their birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.

You might be surprised that there’s a fifth stanza—in fact, you might be surprised that there’s a second, third and fourth. The others are rarely played, but you might hear them on really formal occasions. You’ll almost never hear the third stanza, though, which is pretty anti-British. Here are the lyrics to the song in their entirety.

7. Francis Scott Key's grandson was imprisoned in Fort McHenry.

Ironically, Francis Scott Key’s grandson was jailed in the very place that inspired his granddad to write “The Star-Spangled Banner." In 1861, residents of Baltimore who were deemed to be pro-South were held in Fort McHenry.

8. Other countries have played "The Star-Spangled Banner" to support the American people.

The song inspires all kinds of emotions in a lot of people, but there’s one instance where it really tugged at the heartstrings of the world. On September 12, 2001, the Buckingham Palace band played the American national anthem during their Changing of the Guard. The gesture of solidarity and show of support was repeated for Spain (with their national anthem, of course, not “The Star-Spangled Banner”) in 2004 after the bombings in Madrid.

9. "The Star-Spangled Banner" wasn't always played before baseball games.

The tradition of playing the national anthem before a baseball game wasn't standard until WWII. Before that, the song was typically reserved for the seventh-inning stretch.

10. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is really hard to sing.

Our national anthem is so difficult to sing well that radio host Garrison Keillor started a campaign to transpose the song to a more congenial key, G major. He argued that most singers are able to tackle that key with ease, unlike A flat major, the key in which it's typically sung today. So far, obviously, he has been unsuccessful.

A version of this story first ran in 2010.