It’s not unusual to read online that the United States national anthem was a drinking song and, like many myths, this tale has a core of truth surrounded by misinformation. Yes—the lyric of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” upon which Francis Scott Key’s lyric was written, clearly contains a toast in its final stanza and indeed the song was sung at each meeting of London’s 18th-century Anacreontic Society. While its members were no teetotalers, their song is a far cry from a boisterous pub ditty.
London’s Anacreontic Society was an amateur musicians club for members of considerable means and social capital. Meetings consisted of a classical orchestral concert performed by freelance professional musicians, followed by a dinner, followed by group singing (think GLEE, but with only men singing and without the dance routines). Certainly there was alcohol involved during dinner and during the vocal hours, but–originally at least–the tune upon which Key based his lyric celebrating the heroism of the Americans who defended Fort McHenry in September 1814 against all odds was not sung by a group of drunken revelers.
The president of the Society, always an amateur “operatic” singer in the classical tradition, performed “The Anacreontic Song,” after dinner to invoke the Greek poet Anacreon and inspire the evening’s music making. On occasion the singing could linger into the wee hours of the next day, and young members might even greet the sunrise on their way home. This origin answers one important question about the anthem: Why is “The Star-Spangled Banner” so hard to sing? Because its tune was never intended for group singing, but for a trained solo voice–a singer who would have no difficulty with its expanded range. Another myth is that tune and text were only united after Key’s lyric was written; in fact, given its rare 8-line stanzas and the fact that Key had written a previous lyric to the same tune, Key composed the words to fit Anacreon’s melody.
Anacreon’s reputation as a drinking song is likely connected to other songs that shared the same melody that were boisterous pub ditties, namely “The New Bibo” and “Jack Oakum in the Suds” (more about those later). It was the runaway success of Key’s victory song for the young nation that destined it to become the U.S. national anthem—despite its British origins, despite its associations with alcohol, and despite its extended range which made it difficult (if not impossible) for some to sing. The Banner was just one of many patriotic lyrics celebrating the War of 1812, and Key could never have imagined that it would in 1931 become the official national anthem of the United States of America. The miracle of song is that it did.