by Marc Leepson
Francis Scott Key loved poetry. From the time he was a child, he spun out rhyming verses with prolific regularity—verses that with one giant exception were at best overly flowery and at worse, embarrassingly amateurish. Verses that their author never meant to be seen or read outside the circle of his family and friends.
The giant exception was the patriotic paean to the American flag that he wrote on the fateful night of September 13-14, 1814, during one of the War of 1812’s most ferocious and crucial engagements, the Battle of Baltimore. That night a massive British fleet of warships tried to pound the city into submission with a constant stream of some 1,500 bomb, mortar and rocket shells as an intense thunderstorm punctuated the darkness.
Fort McHenry, the place where Francis Scott Key observed that the “flag was still there” and wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” following an engagement with the invading British during the War of 1812. Baltimore, Maryland. Image is in the public domain, via Library of Congress.
The words that thirty-five-year-old Francis Scott Key wrote that night—first titled “The Defence of Ft. M’Henry”—contained lines that have melded into the fabric of American life. Put to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a well-known song of the day, the words morphed into “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which became the official National Anthem in 1931.
One giant question surrounds what the accomplished Washington, D.C., lawyer wrote that night: Did Frank Key (as he was known to family and friends) write a poem or a song? Described by family members as “unmusical,” Key had never written a song in his life (aside from several religious hymns), which makes it unlikely he was thinking musically in Baltimore Harbor when he scribbled the words “Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light” on the back of a letter he fished out of his pocket.
On the other hand, the verses he wrote in Baltimore (as well the words he had written seven years earlier) were set in rhyme and meter precisely to “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
Precious Little to Say
Compounding the mystery is the fact that Francis Scott Key had precious little to say about the poem (or song) after he wrote it. He did not speak of it in the one letter he wrote after the battle in which he recounted his Baltimore mission to free his friend Dr. William Beanes, who was taken prisoner taken after the Battle of Bladensburg. And it appears that he spoke of the song in public only once—in a political speech in 1834, nearly twenty years later, in which Key deferentially said that the real credit for the piece went to the defenders of Baltimore, not the lawyer/poet who set down the words.
Was Frank Key writing a poem when he scribbled the verses down that night and polished them the next morning? Or was he writing the words to a song to be sung to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven?” Since Key never addressed the matter publicly, we can only go on a few scraps of concrete historical evidence.
Key was a life-long amateur poet, not a songwriter; nothing on the untitled verses he wrote in Baltimore indicated they were anything other than a poem; and Key was unmusical at best and possibly tone deaf. Aside from a few religious hymns and possibly one patriotic song, he had not written the words to any song before 1814—or after that, for that matter. And, despite the fact that he twice referred to what he wrote as “a song” in the 1834 speech, he spoke those words long after his untitled poem had morphed into the patriotic song called “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The journalist and author W. U. Hensel investigated the poem-or-song issue matter in the early 1880s. After interviewing Key descendants, Hensel concluded that Francis Scott Key had “an ignorance of musical composition” and “could not tell one tune from another.” Songs such as “Old Hundred, Yankee Doodle, Hail Columbia and the Star Spangled Banner,” he wrote, “were entirely undistinguishable to the ear of Francis Scott Key.”
For evidence, Hensel pointed to an incident that allegedly took place in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1833 when a local band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a reception given in Key’s honor. “To the great astonishment and amusement of the gentlemen about him,” Hensel wrote, Key “innocently remarked that ‘It was a pretty air,’ densely ignorant of the tune they were playing.”
The evidence pointing to Key writing a song on the night of September 13-14 also is mostly speculative. It includes the fact that the poem’s rhyme and meter almost perfectly match those of “To Anacreon in Heaven.” And the fact that Frank Key, whether unmusical or not, certainly had heard the tune as it was used in many other popular songs of his day, including “Adams and Liberty,” a pro-Federalist political ditty written in 1798 by Robert Treat Paine, Jr. And that it was common practice in the early 19th century to put new words to popular tones.
Plus, it is all but certain that nine years earlier Key wrote a patriotic poem that became a song. The occasion: a December 6, 1805, dinner at McLaughlin’s Tavern in Georgetown honoring Tripolitan War naval heroes Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart. The assembled guests that evening sang a song, “which had been prepared for the occasion about an hour before Dinner, by a gentleman of George-Town,” a local newspaper reported.
That “Song” is sometimes referred to by its first words, “When the Warrior Returns.” Foreshadowing its famed successor, “Song” contains the lines:
And pale beam’d the Crescent, it’s splendour obscur’d
By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.
What’s more, it was sung that night to the tune of “To Anachreon on Heaven.”
A recent exhaustive study by music historian David Hildebrand that takes into consideration all of the poem-versus-song evidence concludes that Frank Key did, indeed, write a song during the Battle of Baltimore.
“I am convinced that this was the melody going through his mind,” Hildebrand, the director of the Colonial Music Institute, said in 2012.
MARC LEEPSON is the author of eight books, including Lafayette, Desperate Engagement, Saving Monticello, and Flag. Former staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, his work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, and USA Today among others. He has been interviewed on the Today show, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, BBC’s Newshour, and the History Channel. He lives in Middleburg, Virginia. His latest book is What So Proudly We Hailed