O Say Can You See: The Genealogy & Origins Of The Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner is 200 years old in September. The author, Francis Scott Key, has genealogy information that’s widely known. Our RecordClick professional genealogist Joan Shurtliff as the wonderful family history researcher that she is always looks beyond the obvious. For our genealogy research fans, she’s found the origins of the actual song. Now isn’t this nice harmony for our melody?!

This genealogy researcher has been looking at September 13 of this year. That date marks the beginning of the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814. It was one of the last battles in the War of 1812 and it is notable because it is the battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that became the national anthem of the United States: The Star-Spangled Banner.

This year on September 13, it will be 200 years since that battle and Key’s penning of the poem.

This RecordClick professional genealogist thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the genealogy of Francis Scott Key. He was a lawyer and an amateur poet and was being detained on a British warship during the British naval bombardment of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. When the bombardment subsided and Key witnessed that Fort McHenry was still flying its huge American flag, he began writing his poem. But, Francis Scott Key’s genealogical information is very easily found.

So instead, I decided to research the genealogy of his most famous work–our national anthem.

It is common knowledge that the melody for The Star-Spangled Banner is a British drinking tune. As I began to delve into this genealogical research, I discovered that this British drinking tune was written by a church organist. For this family history researcher, that information sounds like family to me!

A song has “parents”: the person who writes the music and the person who writes the words. Sometimes it is one person, sometimes two. A good genealogy researcher is a good tracker. And we genealogists like a good quest. My quest to track down the original words to The Star-Spangled Banner took me to a neat website: Poem of the Week archives at www.potw.org. The sources cited included an article, The Music of the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ From Ludgate Hill to Capital Hill by William Lichtenwanger. It appeared in The Quarterly, the journal of the Library of Congress in July 1977 on pages 136-177.

Normally, as a professional genealogist, I shy away from secondary sources such as this one. But I have found that as a genealogy researcher, there is always the possibility of an “it depends”. This piece is a well written, informative academic work that asks the questions, explains the research, and uses primary sources. It is also way easier to read and follow than a lot of academic works I’ve encountered. So, this genealogy researcher decided to use it as my source.

When researching information that is genealogical, historical or otherwise, the genealogy researcher always needs to ask questions. In this case, some of the questions the genealogist would ask might be:

  • Who was the article’s author? Was it William Lichtenwanger?
  • Who wrote the words to the drinking song?
  • Who composed the music to The Star Spangled Banner?
  • How did a church organist come to write the music to a drinking song?
  • How did the song make its way to the United States?
  • How did the poem of Francis Scott Key end up being sung to the music of a drinking song?

Here are some answers this professional genealogist has found:

William Lichtenwanger earned both a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in Musicology . He was head of the Music Reference Section of the Library of Congress for 34 years. (from The Herald-Mail newspaper; Sunday Dec. 17, 2000; Hagerstown, Maryland. I accessed his obituary through genealogybank.com.)

In England, after 1750, a desire arose for more ways for men to socialize. To meet this need, Gentleman’s clubs were created. They focused on food (and wine), literature, science and music, among other things. One of these new clubs at that time was called the Anacreontic Society. It was named for the Greek poet Anacreon. Anacreon had lived in the 500s B.C. His poetry celebrates love and wine, Venus and Bacchus. This Anacreontic Society would meet a dozen times a year, usually in the winter months. The evening would begin with music and singing. A supper would be served at about 10 p.m. After eating, the members would enjoy more singing and music. Musicians and composers (including Haydn) visiting England from all over Europe would perform for the Society members. During his tenure as president of the Society, Ralph Tomlinson felt the organization should have a song. He wrote a poem with several verses, each verse ending with:

“And besides I’ll instruct you like me to intwine

The myrtle of Venus with Baccus’s vine.”

Tomlinson was born in 1744 in Cheshire and, in 1766, was admitted to the Society of Gentleman Practisers in the Courts of Law and Equity (the predecessor body of the Law Society, which was incorporated in 1826, and now deals with many aspects of regulating Solicitors.) He died rather suddenly in 1778 in London.

There was a longstanding controversy over who wrote the music that went with Tomlinson’s verses. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that experts researching the origins of The Star-Spangled Banner finally decided that the melody was penned by John Stafford Smith, a musician who had been involved with the Anacreontic Society.

Smith was born in 1750 in Gloucester. He first studied music under his father and was a choirboy in the Gloucester Cathedral choir. He was sent to London to study organ and composition where he later became a chorister at the Chapel Royal. In 1784, John Stafford Smith was made a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He composed both secular and sacred music. Anacreontic Society President Tomlinson came to know him from the Society and that is how he came to ask Smith to write music to go with his poem’s words. The tune for the poem that came to be called Anacreon in Heaven was created.

This song was published in England and made its way to the United States. A number of parodies were created, most notably Adams and Liberty by Robert Treat Paine, Jr. in 1798. In this way, Francis Scott Key became familiar with the melody. The rest, they say, is history.

A timeline of this song’s genealogy is below:

The 100 year anniversary of the national anthem writing. Our RecordClick genealogist researches the song's history

At the century mark of the national anthem’s composition, our RecordClick genealogist researches the song’s history.

  • 1770s – Words and music to Anacreon in Heaven written and composed.
  • 1798 – Parody Adams and Liberty created in the United States.
  • 1814 – Francis Scott Key writes the words to The Star-Spangled Banner and they are put to the tune of Anacreon in Heaven.
  • 1862-1865 – The Star-Spangled Banner becomes popular during the Civil War.
  • 1889 – The Navy Department orders The Star-Spangled Banner played at morning colors and Hail Columbia at evening colors.
  • 1893 – The Navy Department instructs The Star-Spangled Banner be played at both morning and evening colors.
  • 1917 – By this time, all branches of the military have adopted The Star-Spangled Banner.
  • 1931 – The Star-Spangled Banner is designated the national anthem with legislation signed by President Herbert Hoover.

The staying power of The Star Spangled Banner is attributed to how well the music was crafted. Author Lichtenwanger noted on page 27 of the article:

“…On December 22, 1837, George Templeton Strong (1820-1875) of New York wrote in his journal: ‘A lot of tipsy loafers are just going past, screaming out The Star-Spangled Banner at the top of their lungs, and in all sorts of diabolical discords. But it sounds gloriously. It’s a glorious thing altogether – words and music – no matter how it’s mangled.”

Whether it is the story of the national anthem or of your family, a genealogist for hire at RecordClick will help solve your genealogy research mysteries. We search for the special tidbits of genealogical and historical information for your family’s special story.