How one man influenced the way we look at “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Taps”
Most Americans of a certain age will recognize “Ripley’s Believe or Not!” “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” was started by Robert Ripley, and dealt in bizarre events and items so strange and unusual that readers might question the claims. Originally a newspaper panel, the Believe It or Not feature proved popular and was later adapted into a wide variety of formats, including radio, television, comic books, a chain of museums and a book series.
LeRoy Robert Ripley was born around February 22, 1890, in Santa Rosa, California, although his exact birthdate is disputed. He dropped out of high school after his father’s death to help his family, and at age 16, he began working as a sports cartoonist for various newspapers. In 1913, he moved to New York City. While drawing cartoons for The New York Globe newspaper, he created his first “Believe It or Not!” cartoon, published in the December 19, 1918, issue. With a positive response from readers, the cartoon began appearing weekly.
Originally started as a sports trivia comic, Ripley’s Believe It or Not did fine for its first few years. In 1924, it was picked up for syndication by the Associated Press and started gaining even more eyeballs. But it didn’t really hit the big time until 1927 when Ripley did the unthinkable: he called out Charles Lindbergh as a liar. Lindbergh had just made a nonstop, solo flight across the Atlantic and was being lauded as a hero. Ripley, meanwhile, pointed out that Lindy was actually the 67th man to do what he did.
Americans responded by criticizing Ripley through letters to newspapers and in turn making his comic strip famous in the process. By1929, Robert Ripley was a rich celebrity, bankrolled by William Randolph Hearst and buoyed by the Great Depression. Strange yet, instead of berating him, newspaper readers everywhere had started taking his trivia as gospel. Ripley would go on to greater fame and fortune over the next 20 years with his weekly cartoon.
SO, WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH “THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER?“
In 1929, Ripley published a cartoon stating that “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem.”
Again, Americans were shocked and Ripley received an angry backlash. He told letter-writers that their efforts would be better spent writing their congressmen. Five million letters soon arrived in Washington demanding that Congress proclaim a national anthem.
The “Star-Spangled Banner” had been used widely, particularly by the Navy during flag-raising ceremonies, but other songs including “Hail Columbia” and “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” were also used at official occasions. “The Star Spangled Banner” had become one of the most popular patriotic songs of the United States by the time of the Civil War and by the late 19th century had become the official song of the U.S. military, but it was never declared the official national anthem of the country. You can read about the adoption of the Star-Spangled Banner as our national Anthem BY CLICKING HERE
After Ripley’s cartoon spurred the American people to demand “The Star Spangled Banner” to become the official national anthem there was some debate in Congress on whether a song with somewhat violent subject matter should be the official anthem. The crusade to induce Congress to adopt the Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem was championed by representative Charles Linthicum from Anne Arundel county, Maryland. He first introduced his national anthem bill in Congress in 1918. Critics assailed “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the ground that it was boastful and militaristic. Our national anthem, they said, should express the spirit of brotherhood and a plea for international peace. A competition was held to find a worthy anthem. John Phillip Sousa testified in its favor saying the “spirit of the music inspires.” In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a law making the “Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem.
This Ripley cartoon gave rise to the notion that the music to “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“To Anacreon in Heaven”) was a “Vulgar old English drinking song.” His cartoon depicts it as a rowdy number sung by inebriated bar patrons. This image of the song was to last in the minds of most Americans even to this day. The song was actually written for a 18th century London social club (Anacreontic Society) for gentlemen that met every other week for formal concerts, dinner and social time which included singing catches, glees and assuming songs. Founder Ralph Tomilson wrote a poem that was set to music for the club by a church organist and composer named John Stafford Smith. Anacreon was a Greek Poet Anacreontic society named in his honor.
Many new words were added to Smith’s melody and the song made its way to the colonies. New versions came about including one in praise of our 2nd president called Adams and Liberty. That Francis Scott Key chose the melody for his poem composed during the Battle at Fort McHenry in 1814 is unquestioned as he probably knew the tune and fitted the text word to the melody.
This is not the only time Robert Ripley influenced Americans understanding of music in our history. In 1949 Ripley created a far-fetched story about the bugle call Taps for his short-lived TV program. The story told of how a Union Army Captain found the music of Taps in the pocket of his dead son who had gone off to fight for the South. This is chronicled in the book “Ripley, the Modern Marco Polo: The Life and Times of the Creator of “Believe It Or Not” by Bob Considine, published by Doubleday & Co. in 1961. As Considine wrote: “The denouement of this is a coincidence incredible even by Rip’s standards.”
But unfortunately, the story of Taps, like the “Vulgar old English drinking song“, continues to live on…