Earlier this month we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s writing the “The Star Spangled Banner” in 1814. For much of our nation’s history since then, “The Star Spangled Banner” was not officially designated as the national anthem, but shared its position with a handful of other popular patriotic songs.
In fact, as reported in the magazine The Music Trades from July 11, 1903, a noted professor from Northwestern University confidently predicted that “A Hot Time in the Old Town, Tonight” would soon become the national anthem. The song had particular merit, he noted, because “[b]oth the words and music are in perfect harmony with the Yankee spirit. They’ve sung it all around the world.” Furthermore, he continued, the “charge up San Juan Hill was made to its music.”
Yankee spirit notwithstanding, we now know that Herbert Hoover signed Public Law 823 naming “The Star Spangled” our national anthem on March 3, 1931. This honor was not merely the act of a pen-stroke, however, but was the culmination of a long history of the song’s growing popularity and widespread use in patriotic civic rituals such as Independence Day celebrations, military displays, and elections. By the Civil War the tune was widely used by the Union’s military bands on many occasions, but most notably for morning and evening flag ceremonies. Following reconstruction these practices became codified in Navy regulations, as did the directive that the Marine Band, headed by John Philip Sousa, would play the song at beginning of each concert.
Increasingly after the Civil War, the song was regarded as the de facto national anthem. Even so, enough confusion remained over the matter that Sousa himself viewed “Hail Columbia” as the national anthem. He was on record, however, as believing that “The Star Spangled Banner” was musically superior to “Hail Columbia.” In the first decades of the recording industry Sousa’s uncertainty was typical: there were a number of candidates for the national anthem including “Hail Columbia,” “My Country tis of Thee,” and “Yankee Doodle.” Opinion in New York reportedly favored recognizing “America the Beautiful” as the national anthem, whereas New Englanders and school teachers preferred “America (My Country tis of Thee).” In fact in 1913 Baltimore’s Evening Sun reported that Miss Henrietta Baker, superintendent of public schools in Baltimore, had taken it upon herself to rewrite the song in order to nullify the oft-heard criticism that it was too difficult to sing. Baker, assisted by a group of Baltimore’s leading musicians, sought to make the words and music “fit together” better while retaining the song’s familiar harmonies, and, most importantly, banishing the high F that so often led to “a hideous anti-climax” during public performances. The plan was to have all of Baltimore singing the new version of the song before the Centennial celebration in 1914.
While Baker’s campaign ultimately failed, Baltimoreans’ support of the “Star Spangled Banner” would directly lead to the legal elevation of the song to the status of our national anthem. Between 1911 and 1931 more than forty bills and joint resolutions were introduced to Congress advocating for the song. Key figures in the fight were the Maryland Society of the U.S. Daughters of 1812 and their ally Representative J. Charles Linthicum. While interest in the issue flagged in the mid-1920s, the weight of tradition and the appeal of good music won the day. The act proclaimed: “That the composition consisting of the words and music known as The Star-Spangled Banner is designated the national anthem of the United States of America.”
The major record labels of the early twentieth century helped the effort in an indirect way. Victor and Columbia released over 60 different versions the Star Spangled Banner by a variety of artists before 1930. This was more releases than the total for “Hail Columbia” and “America (My Country tis of Thee)” combined. Victor even released versions of the song in Czech and as part of a medley of patriotic songs played on tubular bells by The Westminster Chimes! Have a listen.