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The Star-Spangled Banner: A Guide to Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

The following Frequently Asked Questions provide interesting facts about the national anthem and its background.

John Stafford Smith, composer. The Star-Spangled Banner (Service Version).1918. Library of Congress Music Division.

1. Is there an official version of the Star-Spangled Banner?
The legislation that was signed into law by Herbert Hoover in 1931 reads "...that the composition consisting of the words and music known as the Star-Spangled Banner is designated as the national anthem of the United States" without further specification. There are, however, various state laws that limit the manner of performance, most famously a 1917 law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, "...whoever plays, sings or renders the ''Star-Spangled Banner'', or any part thereof, as dance music, as an exit march or as a part of a medley of any kind, shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars."

2. Was Igor Stravinsky arrested for his radical harmonization of the Star-Spangled Banner?
There is a photograph of Igor Stravinsky circulating on the internet that looks like a mugshot. It is actually a photo used for a visa application in 1940. Stravinsky arranged the anthem in 1941 and conducted a series of performances with the Boston Symphony in January 1944. During that run of concerts, the Boston police came to the concert hall and told Stravinsky that his arrangement could violate Massachusetts law (mentioned above). In light of that news, the composer decided to use a traditional arrangement for the orchestra's next concert, which was broadcast on the radio.

3. Was Francis Scott Key held prisoner on a British ship during the bombardment of Fort McHenry? 
President James Madison had permitted Key to negotiate the release of Dr. William Beanes from the British. John Stuart Skinner took Key to the British ship where Dr. Beanes was held. They negotiated his release, and, eventually, Key, Skinner, and Beanes returned to Skinner's American truce ship. However, the British army prevented them from leaving the bay due to the information they had gathered during the negotiation. Key witnessed the battle that inspired the Star-Spangled Banner from the American truce ship, tethered to a British warship.

4. Why was Dr. William Beanes taken prisoner by the British? 
During the War of 1812, as British troops marched through Maryland toward the Capitol, Dr. Beanes, who was a prominent resident of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, offered British General Robert Ross and Royal Navy Admiral Sir George Cockburn the use of his home as a headquarters while their troops rested in town. This led General Ross to believe that Beanes was sympathetic to the British cause when Dr. Beanes was merely polite. Over the next few days, the British army proceeded to win the Battle of Bladensburg and burn many important Government buildings in Washington, DC, including the Capitol building and the White House. During the army's return to their ships, they passed through Upper Marlboro again, at which time a small number of deserters ransacked local farms searching for food. Civic leaders such as Robert Bowie, then former Governor of Maryland, Dr. Beanes, and others arrested the deserters and held them in Prince George's County jail. One of the men escaped and returned to the British ship to tell General Ross about the arrest. Based on the soldier's testimony, General Ross believed that Dr. Beanes had deceived him with his previous hospitality and called for the doctor's arrest as a spy.  

5. Was the Star-Spangled Banner written as a poem or a song? 
Originally titled "Defence of Fort M'Henry," Key wrote his poem to fit with the pre-existing song known as "Anacreon in Heaven." It was common at the time to write new words to familiar melodies. This is known as a contrafactum song, a Latin term meaning "counterfeit." The method of composition is popular for patriotic songs, protest songs, or any song meant to be performed, unrehearsed, by a large gathering of people. 

6. Is the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner based on an old English drinking song? 
"The Anacreontic Song," also known as "To Anacreon in Heaven," was the anthem for a social club in London from the 1760s through the 1790s. Members of "The Anacreontic Society" were noblemen and gentlemen with a shared interest in music. Their meetings, which initially took place at a London coffee house but eventually moved to the famous Crown and Anchor Tavern, began with a concert of music by the most prominent musicians in London (in 1791, the great Johann Nepomuk Hummel performed for an audience that included Franz Joseph Haydn), then a lavish dinner, followed an invocation at which "The Anacreontic Song" was sung. After the invocation, members took part in a communal sing of catches, rounds, glees, and various popular songs of the day while they continued to imbibe late into the evening. So, "The Anacreontic Song" is a song celebrating a club at which the members drank alcoholic beverages and most likely sang drinking songs, as well as other types of popular songs, together late into the evening, but "The Anacreontic Song" is not a drinking song.