The Star-Spangled Banner: an American anthem with a very British beginning

The song has its roots in a London gentlemens club in the 18th century, and Congress didnt name it the official US national anthem until 1931

Today, there will be barbecues, fireworks, and of course ceremonial renditions of the US national anthem. Among the proud American listeners, many will know the lyrics and that Francis Scott Key wrote them. But far fewer will know that the musical score of their beloved Star-Spangled Banner was composed by an Englishman and originally served as the anthem for a London gentlemens club.

The British composers identity was a subject of speculation until the 20th-century discovery of a manuscript that identified him as John Stafford Smith, a Gloucester native born in March 1750. The son of a cathedral organist, Smith, as a young man, joined the Chapel Royal in London, where he received instruction from the composer William Boyce.

Though Boyce was old and growing deaf, he nurtured Smiths growing musical prowess, which saw him accepted into the Anacreontic Society (named after the ancient Greek poet Anacreon, who was known for lyrics about drinking and romance), an elite social club boasting such members as writers Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.

Founded in the mid-1760s, the Anacreontic Society first met in various London taverns before relocating to the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. This venue was needed to hold its increasing membership, which rose from a few dozen to 80, according to the 1780 edition of The Gentlemans Magazine and Historical Chronicle.

Anacreontic Society events, which occurred every other Wednesday, would begin with a concert featuring London musicians. At the concerts conclusion, dinner was served. Following dinner, various songs, puppet shows, and other convivial activities would transpire.


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Samuel Johnson was a member of the Anacreontic Society. Photograph: Rischgitz/Getty Images

Also performed every meeting was the societys anthem, To Anacreon in Heaven, whose music was composed by Smith. The songs lyrics were written by fellow Anacreontic Ralph Tomlinson, who served as the societys president.

The final two lines of To Anacreon in Heaven AKA the Anacreontic song were sung in unison by everyone in attendance. As members belted out the lyrics, they would stand hand in hand to signify good fellowship, according to William Lichtenwangers The Music of the Star-Spangled Banner: From Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill.

The Anacreontic songs date of composition is unknown, but it was probably composed in the early to mid-1770s and soon began appearing in anthologies of printed music. Though Londons Anacreontic Society dissolved in the early 1790s, the defunct clubs anthem was reverberating across the UK and eventually across the Atlantic.

Its unknown exactly when the Anacreontic song reached America, but soon enough Smiths composition became the score for many different songs in the States. Though the federal Copyright Act of 1790 protected authors of books, maps, and charts, it did not include musical compositions. In that era, a musical piece could be used infinite times in infinite ways.

When Francis Scott Key wrote his Star-Spangled lyrics after witnessing the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, To Anacreon in Heaven still was wildly popular in the US, where every one who could sing seemed to be singing it, according to the 1873 edition of The American Historical Record.

Key, a lawyer and amateur poet, had long enjoyed the Anacreontic song, and had used Smiths composition a decade earlier as the music for a different poem.

It is unknown how Smith felt about Keys lyrics, which commemorated a battle between the US and Britain. And one might wonder how the composer an Englishman who lived during both the American revolutionary war and the war of 1812 would have felt about Americans, and eventually the entire United States, using his composition.


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Despite the songs enormous popularity, Smith apparently made no effort to broadcast his authorship. The composer seems to have scorned public acclaim, according to William Lichtenwanger, who speculates that Smith had composed the song for a flat fee from the Anacreontic Society, to which he then yielded all rights.

For all the countless times everyone outside the society heard his song, the composer would not be remunerated one bit. Smith, however cheated he may have felt, served as an organist at the Chapel Royal in London, where he composed music both sacred and secular. He also built an extensive collection of musical documents and authored musical anthologies. He died in London in 1836.

By the time of the US civil war, the fusion of Smiths music with Keys lyrics had arguably become Americas most beloved song. In 1889, The Star-Spangled Banner was adopted for official use by the US Navy, and in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that the song be played during official military events.

But it wasnt until 1931 that The Star-Spangled Banner was made the US national anthem by an Act of Congress. The music for a club tune had become the official song for the worlds most powerful country.

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