Top of page

Bringing the “Banner” to Light

Share this post:

Francis Scott Key watches the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814. Prints and Photographs Division.
Francis Scott Key watches the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814. Prints and Photographs Division.

The story of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for many decades, seemed as murky as the smoky haze over Fort McHenry on the morning two centuries ago when Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics that still inspire a nation.

No one knew for sure who wrote the music. No one fully understood the circumstances of the tune’s creation (but, no, it wasn’t a bawdy English drinking song). No one fully understood how Key’s words became connected to the music or how they were disseminated.

Much of what is known about “The Star-Spangled Banner” now – at the anthem’s 200th anniversary – is known because of research conducted by Music Division librarians or with Library of Congress collections. For more than a century, the Library has served as the principal research center for the national anthem.

“We’ve been collecting, documenting, researching and making available this information since 1909,” Music Division librarian Loras Schissel said. “The piece has been printed and reprinted from 1814 to the Civil War. All the different versions that occurred during that period are here through collecting, purchasing, gift or copyright deposits.”

By Dawn’s Early Light

Key, detained aboard a British warship, watched British ships bombard Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor in September 1814. The assault failed, and at dawn on the 14th, Key saw the U.S. flag still there, streaming over the fort’s ramparts. Inspired, he composed the lyrics to what 117 years later became the national anthem.

Key wrote with a particular tune in mind: “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a piece composed as the official song for an 18th-century London club of amateur musicians and, later, widely adapted for other uses.

Key’s lyrics – set to the “Anacreon” melody and soon titled “The Star-Spangled Banner” – over the decades became one of America’s most popular patriotic songs. In 1931, Congress declared the song the official anthem of the United States.

First edition of "The Anacreontic Song." Music Division.
First edition of “The Anacreontic Song.” Music Division.

Library collections contain hundreds of pieces related to the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” collectively tracing its evolution from London music club anthem to national anthem of a growing, powerful country an ocean away. The Library holds, for example, the first printed lyrics of “To Anacreon in Heaven”; the first printed sheet music of that song; Key’s own copy of “Anacreon”; the first printing of Key’s lyrics, circulated in Baltimore just days after the battle; the first printed sheet music setting Key’s lyrics to the “Anacreon” tune and bearing the title “The Star-Spangled Banner”; and the lyrics handwritten by Key years later.

“Taken together, we have the whole story,” Music Division librarian Raymond White said.

An Uncertain History

That story, however, remained murky long after Key’s work became one of America’s most popular patriotic songs. Little was known about the London music club, the Anacreontic Society. The identity of the composer of “To Anacreon in Heaven” was unclear; the song frequently, it turned out, was attributed to the wrong composer. It wasn’t clear how Key became familiar with the tune or how his lyrics were spread.

Much of the scholarly work of locating, comparing and evaluating – often contradictory – information about the song was done by researchers using Library resources or by Music Division librarians examining numerous editions of music and lyrics, newspaper reports and other documents.

“What it comes down to is looking at printed sources, which are not unique but extraordinarily rare,” White said. “The story of this thing plays itself out in these printed sources.”

Composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa, conducting research at the Library, in the late 19th century produced the first serious study of the piece. (Sousa also gave “The Star-Spangled Banner” its first official status: On his recommendation, the Navy required the piece to be played each morning as the flag was raised.)

Over the next nine decades, Music Division librarians expanded on Sousa’s work and ultimately wrote the anthem’s definitive story.

A Watershed Report

The first printed edition combining the words and music of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Music Division.
The first printed edition combining the words and music of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Music Division.

Oscar Sonneck – Music Division chief from 1902 to 1917 – was perhaps America’s first great musicologist. He wrote a bibliography of American secular music, devised the music-classification system still used by many of the world’s libraries and – determined to make the Library one of the world’s great music repositories – began collecting important material.

“He is, perhaps, the most important music librarian in the world,” Schissel said. “His ideas still are standard.”

In 1909, Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam asked Sonneck to produce a report on America’s most important patriotic songs: “Yankee Doodle,” “Hail, Columbia,” “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Sonneck’s work helped establish, among other things, how Key’s lyrics became connected to the “Anacreon” music, when and how the first editions were printed, and that Key was thinking of “Anacreon” when he wrote the lyrics.

Sonneck also helped resolve the lingering mystery of the “Anacreon” composer. Samuel Arnold, among others, had been prominently suggested as its creator. Sonneck, however, sifted the evidence and concluded that an obscure London church organist, John Stafford Smith, likely was the composer.

Later, Sonneck played a key role in establishing a definitive version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” At the request of President Woodrow Wilson, Sonneck headed a committee charged with creating a “standard” version that could be taught and performed consistently. (The original manuscript is in the Library collections.)

“That’s the big step toward 1931,” Schissel said. “Wilson’s saying, ‘When it’s appropriate to play a national anthem, I’d like it to be ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ That’s another push toward anthemhood.”

Putting it all Together

Music Division librarian Richard Hill carried on Sonneck’s work in later decades, establishing proof of the basic conjectural things Sonneck and Sousa had come up with and adding detail about the Anacreontic Society and Smith.

“He put it all together: This was printed at this time. This edition came out then. The Anacreontic song was first published at this point,” Schissel said. “And, among other things: Who was John Stafford Smith? He was a murky figure in this operation.”

Hill died relatively young, in 1961, leaving his work unfinished.

Music Division librarian William Lichtenwanger took Sonneck’s and Hill’s research, added his own and in 1977 produced the work now considered the anthem’s definitive history: “The Music of The Star-Spangled Banner: From Ludgate Hill to Capitol Hill.”

“It basically should be a three-name book: Sonneck, Hill and Lichtenwanger,” Schissel said. “We’re always looking for new information, we’re always looking for new editions, we’re always adding to our knowledge. But that book still is cited. It’s always used.”

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.