Happy New Year! Later this year my next book will be published. Star-Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, tells the story of the United States’ national anthem. I recently ran across an unexpected connection to the story.
On a trip to England, I visited Gloucester Cathedral in Gloucestershire and was surprised to spot an American flag hanging in the nave area. I assumed it was a memorial related to World War II, but I was wrong. It was honoring church organist and British composer John Stafford Smith. Who, you say?
In about 1775 he penned a little tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” or “The Anacreontic Song.” The tune became well-known on both sides of the Atlantic in Britain and the States.
The Anacreontic Society was a popular gentleman’s club in London named after the sixth century B.C. Greek poet Anacreon. The Society usually met at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. The meetings usually included a concert by a well-known musician in London. The evening would begin with the concert, move into supper and end with a rousing sing-along. The first song was always the club song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
In the US, at least eighty-five songs used the same tune. The most popular political song of the day in 1814 was “Adams and Liberty” to what tune? Smith’s of course.
Today, people around the world recognize the tune as America’s national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner. A Georgetown lawyer named Francis Scott Key penned the words of a poem after a battle in Baltimore during the War of 1812. He had been detained by the Royal Navy as they prepared to begin a bombardment of Baltimore. He ended up with a front-row seat to the event and during a very long night of both ferocious bombardment and storms, he was anxious to know if the British had managed to take Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and the city. Only at dawn’s first light could he know for sure.
Inspired by the sight of the stars and strips still flying over the fort, he began writing. He wrote a poem of four verses on an envelope and most likely had Smith’s tune in mind.
Key later said “In that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, the heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song? With it came an inspiration not to be resisted and if it had been a hanging matter to make a song [I] must have made it.”
He showed the poem to a few friends and one of them, with Key’s permission, took it to a local newspaper office and had them print a thousand copies with the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Several hundred copies were given to troops at the Fort.
The poem gradually appeared in newspapers up and down the East Coast. About three weeks later, the Holliday Street Theater in Baltimore presented the first public performance of the song, with its new name, the Star-Spangled Banner. It soon was a regular occurrence. “I hear Uncle Key’s song is sung every night…to a crowded audience and with great applause,” wrote one of Key’s nieces.
Eventually the American military adopted it as an unofficial national anthem and then sporting events began playing it. It didn’t become the official national anthem until 1931.
Gloucester Cathedral is an amazing piece of architecture known especially for its vaulted ceiling and the intricate stonework in the cloisters. It also features one of the largest medieval stained glass windows in England. Begun around 1089, it’s an enduring place of worship and burial site of King Edward II. And yes, it was used as a location for several Harry Potter films.
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