The old melody started as an English tavern song that began To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full glee.
Later, it was used in an American campaign song that began Ye sons of Columbia, who bravely have fought.
And later still, amateur poet Francis Scott Key used it in a song that began When the warrior returns, from the battle afar.
Now, as Key watched the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in the summer of 1814, the melody came to him again, along with new words, Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light.
The story of the lyrics to the national anthem, or the “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” as it was first called, is well known.
The saga of the melody, which was critical to its early success, is less so.
A pop hit of its day, the melody had been recycled so many times, although with different words, that scholars think people on the streets already knew it.
The practice of tune recycling — or parody, as it was called — was extensive in those days.
And few were aware that the author of the music to what would become the American anthem was a renowned British musicologist, antiquarian and church organist.
In September 1814, during the War of 1812, Key, a 35-year-old Georgetown lawyer, headed to Baltimore to negotiate the release of a friend who had been seized by the British. Key was detained on a British ship and, moved by the drama of the moment, wrote the famous lyrics. But the melody he had in mind was the venerable tune that went back to the previous century.
On Thursday, the Library of Congress will host a special concert marking the 200th anniversary of the anthem.
The library will hold a free panel discussion, “Poets and Patriotism: The 200th Birthday of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ” at 12:30 p.m., followed by the concert, which features the famous lyric baritone Thomas Hampson. Both events will be in the library’s Jefferson Building.
Last week, Raymond A. White, a senior music specialist in the library’s music division, explained the long history of the melody and the many ways it has been used over more than 200 years.
It began as “the theme song, you might say . . . of something called the Anacreontic Society in London,” an elite men’s club for amateur musicians founded in about 1766, he said.
The group would meet at London’s Crown and Anchor tavern. “They’d have a concert,” White said. “Then they would adjourn to another room for dinner. . . . Then they would have their sort-of singalong.
“The president of the society was a fellow named Ralph Tomlinson, who apparently fancied himself a singer,” White said. Tomlinson thought the society needed a song, so he penned some lyrics.
His song was titled “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an ode to Anacreon (pronounced an-AK-ree-on), a Greek poet of ancient times who wrote of wine and song. It was a flowery six-verse salute to inspiration and friendship.
The first verse ended with this refrain:
And besides I’ll instruct you like me to entwine
The myrtle of Venus and Bacchus’s vine.
(Key would turn that into:
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?)
The tune for the lyrics was written by John Stafford Smith, a member of the Anacreontic Society and the famous church musician.
Over time, Smith’s tune and Tomlinson’s words grew in popularity.
“The Anacreontic Society faded out, I think toward the end of the 18th century,” White said. “But the tune spread around a lot in England, and it made its way to the United States.”
Last week, surrounded by the library’s rare copies and versions of the song, White sang the first few lines.
“It sounds like ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ but it sounds a little different,” he said. “Rhythms are a little different, and a few notes are a little different.”
At the time, it was common for a songwriter to take someone else’s tune and put new lyrics to it. The author of the music rarely got credit, White said.
Meanwhile, the tune “catches on,” he said, “and people begin to write other words.”
Unfold father time thy long records unfold,
Of noble achievements accomplished of old.
That was the beginning of a 1796 version called “Freedom Triumphant.”
A version, circa 1812, called “The Battle of the Wabash” began:
In the dead of the night when aloud on the air,
Through the darkness the war whoop was heard fiercely yelling.
Yet another, titled “Washington’s Favorite the Brave La Fayette,” began:
Rise sons of Columbia to welcome the brave
Who once with your sires for your freedom contended.
And there were more.
White said there are 84 American versions between 1790 and 1820 that have been documented.
One of the alternate versions was by Key.
“ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was not Francis Scott Key’s first attempt at doing this very thing,” White said. In 1805, using the same melody, he wrote “When the Warrior Returns From the Battle Afar.”
It was penned in honor of the recent victory of U.S. Navy officer Stephen Decatur over North African pirates. Key is said to have once sung it at a dinner for Decatur in Washington, White said.
In addition to the melody, the lyrics have foreshadowings of the national anthem.
The third verse has this line: by the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.
And the song ends:
Where, mix’d with the olive, the laurel shall wave,
And form a bright wreath for the brows of the brave.
White is certain that Key wrote the national anthem’s lyrics to fit the old tune. “He was not writing something he was envisioning as a poem,” he said.
“It’s just inconceivable that somebody could say, ‘Well, that’s a swell poem. You know, [if] we sing this to ‘Anacreon,’ this will be great,’ ” he said. The melody is too complicated.
Within days of Key writing the song in September of 1814, a crude handbill bearing his new lyrics, with the instruction that they be sung to “The Anacreontic Song,” was circulating on the streets of Baltimore.
It landed in a few newspapers, and “within a very short time, this thing is having legs,” White said.
Then, probably in late October, the song was issued as sheet music, White said.
The publisher, Thomas Carr, who had a music store in Baltimore, apparently didn’t like the prosaic title, “Defence of Fort M’Henry.”
So, White said, he came up with a snappier name, which stuck:
“The Star-Spangled Banner.”