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Five surprising facts about ‘The Star Spangled Banner’

The Star Spangled Banner and Fort McHenry  1812
The Star Spangled Banner and Fort McHenry 1812

The Star Spangled Banner is the national anthem of the United States of America. The country’s powerful politics and pop culture have made it familiar round the world, so we may feel that we know it well. A look into its history reveals, however, a few surprising facts about this rousing song.

It was originally a patriotic poem...

It’s not unusual for songs to start their lives as poetry. The poem that forms the text of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ was inspired by an action in the Battle of Baltimore of 1812, in which the U.S. beat off an attack by ships of the British Royal Navy on Fort McHenry. On seeing the 15 stars and stripes still flying over fort, the poet Francis Scott Key was inspired to write his ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry.’

The full text of the ‘Defence of Fort McHenry’

...but was set to drinking song

That rousing melody actually started life as an 18th century drinking song ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’ by John Stafford Smith, a British composer who also happened to be one of the first people to seriously study the works of J.S. Bach (at that time a relatively forgotten figure).

It is pretty hard to sing

There’s quite a bit of competition for the most difficult to sing national anthem.
Uruguay and Equador both have long anthems that are tiring. The full version of Greece’s anthem consists of a whopping 158 stanzas!

‘The Star Spangled Banner’ beats all three in one respect—its vocal range is extremely wide, an octave and a perfect fifth (19 semitones). Depending on your voice, this can make it feel rather too low or, more likely, impossibly high. Combined with the fact that it is also relatively long it can also be tiring to sing.

It took ages to be made official

The song was unofficially recognised as the national anthem during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but a series of attempts in the twenties by congressman John Charles Linthicum to make it official ended in failure. In 1927 there was even a competition to write a new song that would be nominated as a national anthem, but no winner emerged from this. It was not until
March 3rd 1931 that President Herbert Hoover eventually signed it into law as the official anthem.

There have been some iconic covers over the years

The anthem has been sung by many musicians over the years, with some of the most memorable performances being at the opening of Superbowls or Presidential Inaugurations. These include renditions by Beyoncé, Joyce DiDonato, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Hudson, Renée Fleming and others.

Two of the most iconic perhaps are perhaps are those by Jimi Hendrix, whose distorted rendition at Woodstock in 1969 seemed to reflect the troubled nature of the times...

...and Whitney Houston’s iconic performance at the Star Spangled Banner at the 25th Super Bowl in 1991:

Houston’s performance came at a time of great patriotism, the onset of the first Gulf War and is notable for turning the anthem, written in 3, into 4 in the bar, allowing her the space for her brilliant vocal embellishments. Her recording was reissued after the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11th 2001.

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