Though written in 1814, The Star-Spangled Banner is one of the most misunderstood songs in United States history, despite its ubiquity in our culture. Francis Scott Key is partly to blame for an endemic lack of knowledge about the national anthem. To clear things up, here are 5 myths about the Star-Spangled banner.
Myth 1: Key wrote a poem that someone else later matched with the melody of a song that originated in England called “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
The truth: In the days before copyright enforcement, poets often used existing melodies to animate their muse, a practice called parody at the time. Key purposely wrote the four verses that later became known as the national anthem to this popular tune, which underpinned at least 84 previous musical compositions.
The myth arose because Key remained mum about his association with the song, never sought a dime of royalties and only spoke about it once during his lifetime at a banquet more than 20 years after he wrote it (deflecting all praise to the men who defended Baltimore). Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang took advantage of Key’s modesty and created the confusion by claiming credit for pairing verse and tune.
Myth 2: Key called his poem The Defense of Fort M’Henry.
The truth: Key’s original manuscript, now in possession of the Maryland Historical Society, has no title. Someone other than Key brought it to the offices of the Baltimore American newspaper, where the printer affixed this title to a broadside – a sheet of paper with words or images published on one side – the first time Key’s words appear in print. Thomas Carr, who published the initial sheet music version, called it The Star Spangled Banner
Myth 3: The song is war-like.
The truth: Key opposed the War of 1812 but participated in the futile defense of Washington, D.C. The lines “rocket’s red glare” and “bomb bursting in air” (as he wrote them) merely described what he saw as the British navy shelled Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor. The fourth verse reveals his true, qualified take on warfare: “then conquer we must, when our cause it is just.”
Myth 4: The Star-Spangled Banner first aired at a sporting event during the 1918 World Series.
The Truth: For years, baseball historians have known about this falsehood, but many published references lacked a citation. The first documented instance of the song airing at a ballgame is in 1862. A short article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about the opening of the first enclosed baseball stadium stated that at 3:00 o’clock the band arrived and “the proceeding commenced, opening by playing the ‘Star- Spangled Banner.’” Several newspaper accounts in the 1890’s contain colorful descriptions of bands playing the future anthem at Opening Day ceremonies.
Myth 5: Jimi Hendrix played the first controversial version of the song at Woodstock in 1969.
The truth: Ragtime pianists in the 1890’s first performed non-traditional version of The Star-Spangled Banner and other sacred musical cows. Jazz bands in the 1900’s also took liberties with the melody and meter. Aretha Franklin performed the first contested pop version, a “soul-spangled” rendition at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, televised live but overshadowed by the chaos that rocked the streets of Chicago.
Marc Ferris is author of Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely History of America’s National Anthem