Francis Scott Key wrote the words, of course- he wrote the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry” in 1812, from which the verses of our Anthem derive. But who wrote the music to which the words were set? Who played Rodgers to Key’s Hammerstein? A gentleman by the name of John Stafford Smith.
Smith was a British church organist, lay-vicar of Westminster Abbey and also a bit of a composer. Indeed, he achieved sufficient notoriety at these endeavors that in the 1770s he was elected to the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen’s club in London devoted to “wit, harmony, and the god of wine”. Primarily a society of amateur musicians, their membership included the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.
Of course any society of musicologists needs a theme song and Smith was requested to supply one. He had a little ditty he had written as a teenager that he wasn’t doing anything with, so he cleaned it up a bit and presented it to the Anacreontics. They were sufficiently impressed that it became the society’s constitutional song and, since they were also dedicated to “the god of wine”, a popular drinking song. It wasn’t long before it was being sung in taverns on both sides of the Atlantic. Eventually someone adapted Key’s words to the tune and it became a popular patriotic song.
But when did it make the jump to our official National Anthem? Not until a congressional resolution was passed on March 3, 1931, though it was adopted by the navy in 1889 and the President in 1916.
And who wrote the following original words?
To Anacreon in Heaven, 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 author was the president of the Anacreontic Society, Ralph Tomlinson, who never realized how close he came to fame.
John Stafford Smith died in 1836, and nowhere can I find it recorded what he thought of his tune becoming an inspiration to a rebellious former colony.
There remains only to show you the original drinking song as done by the Georgia Tech Glee Club, who appear to have delved not only into the original verses, but also their purpose!