Was the melody of “The Star Spangled Banner” taken from an old drinking song?

SHARE Was the melody of “The Star Spangled Banner” taken from an old drinking song?

Dear Cecil: Rumor has it that the melody of “The Star Spangled Banner” was taken from an old colonial drinking song. If so, what were the original, pre-Francis Scott Key words? Can you print them uncut and complete so I can get a singalong going in the clubs? Reena Pearl, West Hollywood, California


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Coming right up, my sweet, although I think once you get a load of this puppy you’ll agree you’d have better luck organizing a singalong of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

The original tune was “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an English drinking song written by John Stafford Smith with words by Ralph Tomlinson, Esq. According to tradition it was first “sung at the Crown Anchor Tavern in the Strand, circa 1780.” Tomlinson was president of the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen’s club popular with upscale London boozers. Anacreon (563-478 B.C.) was a Greek poet known for his songs of wine and women.

You’re thinking: drinking song? I can’t sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” when I’m sober.

I’m not arguing with you. The thought of a bunch of guys drunk as lords, half of whom were lords, screeching this tune out at the top of their lungs … I don’t know about you, but in thirty seconds I’d be begging for Roseanne.

And the lyrics! You’d expect a drinking song to be pretty raucous, and by comparison to the national anthem I suppose “Anacreon” is. But it’s no “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Here’s the full unexpurgated text, dug out by my able assistant SDSTAFF Songbird, who provided much of the information that follows as well:

To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee, A few Sons of Harmony sent a petition; That he their Inspirer and Patron wou’d be; When this answer arrived from the Jolly Old Grecian; Voice, Fiddle, and Flute, No longer be mute, I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot, And besides I’ll instruct you like me, to intwine, The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine. The news through Olympus immediately flew; When Old Thunder pretended to give himself airs. If these Mortals are suffered their scheme to pursue, The Devil, a Goddess, will stay above stairs. Hark, already they cry, In transports of joy, Away to the Sons of Anacreon we’ll fly. And besides I’ll instruct you like me, to intwine, The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine. The Yellow-Haired God and his nine lusty Maids, From Helion’s banks will incontinent flee, Idalia will boast but of tenantless Shades, And the bi-forked hill a mere desert will be. My Thunder no fear on’t, Shall soon do it’s errand, And damme I’ll swing the Ringleaders I warrant, I’ll trim the young dogs, for thus daring to twine, The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine. Apollo rose up and said, Pry’thee ne’er quarrel, Good sing of the Gods with my Vot’ries below: Your Thunder is useless — then showing his laurel, Cry’d Sic evitable fulmen you know! Then over each head My laurels I’ll spread So my sons from your Crackers no mischief shall dread, While snug in their clubroom, they jovially twine, The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.’ Next Momus got up with his risible Phiz And swore with Apollo he’d cheerfully join — ‘The full tide of Harmony still shall be his, But the Song, and the Catch, and the Laugh, shall be mine. Then Jove be not jealous Of these honest fellows, Cry’d Jove, We relent since the truth you now tell us; And swear by Old Styx, that they long shall intwine, The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine. Ye Sons of Anacreon then join hand in hand; Preserve Unanimity, Friendship, and Love! ‘Tis yours to support what’s so happily plann’d; You’ve the sanction of Gods, and the Fiat of Jove. 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.

Amazingly, the Anacreontic Society still exists in England. According to their website (glyfix.com/soa/anacreon.html), they are “a bawdy, plaid-wearin’, exciting and exhilarating Victorian-era musical-comedy troupe. All together, we are the ultimate devotees to the esteemed dignitary of Master Anacreon hisself (sic). You can say he was the figurative father of all us louts what followed after (‘Specially since none of us know who are father is … !). So, what does that make us?”

Assuming that’s a rhetorical question, let’s move on to America where a young Washington attorney named Francis Scott Key sailed to the British fleet during the War of 1812 to obtain the release of a captured American. He was detained on a British ship and witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the night of Sept. 13-14, 1814. Under Major George Armistead’s command, the fort withstood the attack, and the sight of the American flag flying at dawn inspired Key’s verses, written on the way ashore the next morning.

In those times, folks often recycled good older melodies to use with new lyrics (for example, Maryland’s state song uses the melody from “O Tannenbaum”), so no one minded that Scott Key used “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Of course recycling melodies still happens today. Consider “The Barney Song,” which uses the melody for “This Old Man.” OK, so maybe you’re not watching Barney so much anymore. How about Weird Al Yankovic’s treasure chest of songs including “Smells like Nirvana” or “It’s all about the Pentiums”? But even Weird Al knows, to recycle melodies today requires the use of finely-honed musical skills and the services of an excellent lawyer.

Key’s lyrics circulated as a handbill, then were published in a Baltimore newspaper on Sept. 20, 1814. The song was designated the U.S. national anthem by executive order of President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Following a 20-year effort during which more than 40 bills were introduced to Congress, the order was finally confirmed by Congress in 1931.

You want to use the lyrics above for a singalong, more power to you. But in my heart they’ll never replace, “Oh Anna, my Delta Gamma, she’s got legs like a baby grand pianuh.”

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.