Every school-aged kid learns that Francis Scott Key penned the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” while watching the British navy pound Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Is there any more to the story, though? What about all of the other patriotic songs we belt out to honor our country? Here’s a look at the stories behind some of America’s most flag-waving tunes.
Yes, Key wrote the lyrics while watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, but your teachers probably didn’t tell you the origins of the music. The anthem takes its melody from “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a British drinking song sung by members of London’s Anacreontic Society. Key originally called his poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” but the name changed to “The Star-Spangled Banner” when sheet music for the tune became available.
The song didn’t immediately catch on as the national anthem, either. Although the patriotic tune was popular, it didn’t become the national anthem until Congress gave it the official nod in 1931. Prior that, the U.S. had not had an official national anthem, although “Hail, Columbia” often played the part at ceremonies.
Wait, what’s “Hail, Columbia?” Good question. The longtime unofficial national anthem traces its roots back to 1789, when Philip Phile wrote the song for George Washington’s inauguration. It probably isn’t so familiar to modern audiences – or at least it wasn’t to me – but it still makes official appearances. It’s played for the Vice President’s entrance in the same way “Hail to the Chief” is played for the President. If the name’s not ringing any bells, have a listen:
The words to this old favorite date back to 1831, when Samuel Francis Smith wrote them while he was studying at Andover Theological Seminary. Smith started writing lyrics at the request of his friend Lowell Mason, a well-known organist, who needed some help adapting tunes he’d found in some German music books.
The two friends decided they really liked one of the songs in the German text, so Smith banged out the familiar lyrics to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Smith and Mason probably didn’t know it since they were working from the German translation, but their new song actually shared its melody with the British national anthem, “God Save the King.” Despite the odd British ties, the song was a hit after its 1831 debut at Boston’s Park Street Church.
Katharine Lee Bates likely didn’t know she was going to write what would become one of the country’s most beloved songs when she visited Colorado in 1893 for a lecture tour. Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley, became particularly interested in the Rockies, so she wrote a poem entitled “Pike’s Peak.” These words are what we now think of as the lyrics of “America the Beautiful.” The poem first appeared in print in the weekly newspaper The Congregationalist in 1895, and in 1904 Bates made some slight tweaks for a revised publication in The Boston Evening Transcript.
The poem became so popular that people around the country started singing it to whatever melody they could fit the words, including “Auld Lang Syne.” The melody we know actually dates back to 1882, when Newark choirmaster Samuel Augustus Ward wrote it for a song called “Materna.” The melody and lyrics first started appearing together in 1910, and by 1926 Ward’s music and Bates’ words were pretty much permanently joined as “America the Beautiful.” Here’s the famous Ray Charles version:
No one’s quite sure exactly when “Yankee Doodle” first appeared, but credit for writing the lyrics usually goes to Dr. Richard Shuckburgh, a British army doctor who served in the French and Indian War. According to the story, Shuckburgh watched the ragtag, disheveled colonial militias fight alongside the orderly, dapper British forces and wrote the lyrics to mock the colonists. (“Doodle” is an archaic term for a bumpkin, simpleton, or rube.)
It’s not clear when the colonists decided to steal the British troops’ derisive ditty and use it as a march of their own, but it’s suggested that both sides sang the song at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the British to mock their foes and the Americans to rally their forces.
The song that means the President’s about to arrive can be traced back to a Scottish poem. Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake,” a narrative poem first published in 1810, contains the words “Hail to the chief who in triumph advances! Honored and blessed be the ever-green pine!” The poem became such a runaway hit that various theater companies started producing Scott’s narrative for the stage.
One of these theatrical productions made its debut in Philadelphia in 1812. This version borrowed songs from some of the London adaptations of the poem, including James Sanderson’s tune “Hail to the Chief.” The song became quite popular, and in 1815 it was played to honor the late George Washington.
In 1829 Andrew Jackson became the first president to be honored with a playing of the song, but we really have John Tyler’s wife, Julia, and James K. Polk’s wife, Sarah, to thank for the association of the song with the presidency. Mrs. Tyler made the first request that the song be played to herald the chief executive’s arrival at events. When Polk succeeded Tyler, Sarah Childress Polk took an even firmer stance, stating that “Hail to the Chief” should accompany her husband to official events, and the tradition took off. Contrary to popular belief, the song was not written for James Madison, our shortest president, whose arrival—according to legend—often went unnoticed, thus necessitating a theme song of sorts.
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