The song’s popularity soon spread across the Atlantic, where various Anacreontic societies were established, including one in Baltimore. Songwriters continually adapted new words to the melody, and by 1814, no fewer than 85 versions had been published in the United States.
There is no doubt Key was quite familiar with the melody. He had used the tune for a song he had written nine years earlier saluting Navy Lt. Stephen Decatur for his heroism during the first Barbary War. At Tripoli harbor in February 1804, Decatur boarded the captured USS Philadelphia with U.S. Marines, set fire to the ship, and escaped under a hail of fire. Decatur was celebrated across America.
Key viewed it as not only a triumph against pirates, but also a victory of Christianity over Islam. When a dinner party was thrown in Georgetown on Nov. 30, 1805, in honor of Decatur, Key wrote a song for the occasion. Titled “When the Warrior Returns From the Battle Afar,” it was sung to the tune of “Anacreon.”
The third verse included this couplet:
And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscured,
By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.
The song was printed in several newspapers, including the Boston Independent Chronicle. Though inferior to the song that would follow nine years later, “Warrior” contains the unmistakable genesis of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” showing metric agreement and similar phrasing. It guided Key as he composed his new song.
* * *
Once the excitement died, Key took lodging a few blocks away at the Indian Queen Tavern, at the corner of Market and Hanover streets. That night in his room, he picked up a pen and paper to write his song longhand. The notes written on the back of the letter served as the basis for much of his composition. But for some of the lines, as Taney recounted, “he was obliged to rely altogether on his memory.”
“O say can you see through” — Key paused here, scratched out “through” and substituted “by,” then continued: “the dawn’s early light.” The verse, when completed, asked one long question:
O say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming
Whose broad stripes & bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there