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It’s been 200 years since Francis Scott Key’s poem about a shredded star-spangled flag surviving an 1814 British siege at Fort Henry was set to music. To commemorate the anniversary, the Morgan Library & Museum has put on view one of the few surviving copies of the first edition.
While you’ll likely hear the US national anthem blared throughout the day this July 4, the bombastic contemporary song is quite different from this first edition printed for Baltimore’s Carrs Music Store. The “Pariotic Song,” as the sheet music unfortunately misspells, was an adaptation of a 1770s tune by British composer John Stafford Smith, known as “The Anacreontic Song.” So, yes, the most American of songs is in a way from England — but it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Even before Keys, the ditty had been used for other patriotic proclamations, including in the French Revolution. A glance at the notes in the Morgan’s copy shows a jaunty introduction and speedier pace, as well as a whole four verses. University of Michigan Associate Professor Mark Clague, who’s leading the Star Spangled Music bicentennial initiative, told the New York Times: “Key wouldn’t recognize what we sing today. […] It’s missing a phrase of music, it’s at the wrong tempo, it’s much slower, it’s sung by a massed group of people instead of an individual soloist.” It was only in 1931 that “The Star Spangled Banner” was officially made the country’s national anthem by Congress, cementing its place of pomp ahead of then-competitors “Hail, Columbia” and “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”
Meanwhile in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is exhibiting the original Francis Scott Key manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner” alongside the tattered flag that inspired it. Both that exhibition and the one at the Morgan are reminders that even the most iconic emblems of patriotism have a dense history. To celebrate Independence Day properly, listen to a recording of how “The Star-Spangled Banner” would have sounded in the 19th century.
The 1814 first edition of “The Star Spangled Banner” is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown East, Manhattan) through September 7. Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” manuscript and the inspiring flag are on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC) through July 6.