Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 4. The Star Spangled Banner

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXVI. Patriotic Songs and Hymns

§ 4. The Star Spangled Banner

We owe The Star Spangled Banner to the existence of a long-popular melody and to the inspiration of a thrilling event—the British attack on Fort McHenry, 13 April, 1814. Words and music of To Anacreon in Heaven, constitutional song of the Anacreontic Society in London, were published in 1771. They became so beloved of all convivial souls that the words (with or without the music) were reprinted in twenty-one known magazines and song collections in England between 1780 and 1804, and the melody (with the original or adapted words) was printed no less than thirty times in America between 1796 and 1813. For this tune, in the thrill of the moment of discovery that “the flag was still there,” Francis Scott Key began his version of the song “in the dawn’s early light,” sketched out the remainder on the way to land, copied it on arrival at his Baltimore hotel, and saw it in circulation as a broadside on the next day. At the outset it met with only moderate popularity, being omitted, as a universal favourite never could have been, from many important song books during the next twenty years. Not until the Civil War was it widely accepted as a national anthem, and then came two more paraphrases in St. George Tucker’s attempt to requisition it for the Confederacy in The Southern Cross and in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s added stanza.

Here are three types, the common factor being that the music always provided the pattern for the words. Yankee Doodle was a sort of ballad, loaded on a music vehicle which has rolled through the decades without its burden. Hail Columbia, written for a march tune, was made public in propitious circumstances and achieved an immediate vogue, but is seldom sung today except to fill out a program. The Star Spangled Banner, set to an old convivial song, with a range that demands the exhilaration of the cup, has been granted long life on account of its official recognition; yet it successfully defies vocal assault by any mixed group. America, the fourth permanently national song, casually written in 1832 by the youthful S. F. Smith, was set to an English tune of ninety years’s standing encountered in a German song book lent him by Lowell Mason. This, therefore, though simple and popular, was no more indigenous than Yankee Doodle or The Star Spangled Banner. In recognition of these facts an attempt was made in 1861 to elicit a national hymn by means of a public competition for a substantial prize. The committee of award accepted their duty with misgivings, reluctant “to assume the function of deciding for their fellow-citizens a question which it seemed to them could really be settled only by general consent and the lapse of time.” Their fears were realized, and they exercised the right they had reserved to make no award.