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The Star Spangled Banner adoption as our national anthem

Fort McHenry Flag

March 3rd marks the anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner’s” adoption as our national anthem, thanks in large part to John Charles Linthicum, a Maryland congressman who spent 12 years working to convince members of Congress to enact legislation.

The “Star-Spangled Banner” has been the topic of performance interpretation since it has came back into the public consciousness after 911. Numerous performances and recordings of the anthem has led one to ask if there is United States code for the performance of the song. As we all know, the anthem was a poem written by Francis Scott Key during the failed attack on Fort McHenry in September 1814 and was set to the tune Anacreon in Heaven  The composition captured the spirit of the country. During the Civil War it was used as a national air along with “Hail Columbia”, “Columbia, The Gem of The Ocean” and “Yankee Doodle”. In 1889 the secretary of the Navy designated “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag. Around this time John Philip Sousa (the American composer and bandmaster) arranged the tune in a collection of world national anthems and airs to be used at official government functions. Although there is an indication that Sousa favored “Hail Columbia”as our national anthem he became a strong supporter of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and lived long enough to see it become our official national anthem in 1931.

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) composed the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sept. 14, 1814, after witnessing the massive overnight British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, a key assault during the War of 1812. Key, a lawyer, watched the siege while being detained aboard ship by British sailors. He penned the words after observing, with shock and awe, that the flag “with its 15 stars and 15 stripes”  had survived the nearly 1,800-bomb assault.

A little history on Anacreon in Heaven. The song was written for a  London social club 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

“To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron should be.
When this answer arrived from that jolly old Grecian:
Voice, fiddle and flute no longer be mute,
I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot,
And besides I’ll instruct you like me to entwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.”

Anacreon was a Greek Poet  Anacreontic society named in his honor.

Many new words were added 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 is unquestioned as he probably knew the tune and fitted the text word to the melody.

After the Key wrote the poem, music appeared in a Baltimore Publisher and soon played by instrumental groups. The earliest version we have of an instrumental version comes from our good friends at the Library of Congress dates from 1832 and was from the band at the US Military Academy at West Point. Scored for the wind bands of the late 18th and early 19th century. These groups were called hautbois (O-Bra)Bands he instrumentation of 1800 — 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bassoon, two horns, and a drum — was influenced by Harmoniemusik and European military practice.

2 Flutes
2 Clarinets
2 Horns
Sax Horn

When you hear this it will sound like there’s a wrong note in the melody.
This is the earliest version of the Star-Spangled Banner

1832 Version played at West Point

A Baltimore newspaper published the patriotic lyrics, which had circulated as a handbill, a week after the bombardment. Key’s words were later set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven”, a popular English song written by John Stafford Smith. Throughout the 19th century, most branches of the U.S. armed forces and other groups regarded “The Star Spangled Banner”as the national anthem. (The Navy recognized it for official use in 1889.)

During the Civil War, The Star-Spangled Banner was one of many “national airs,” along with pieces like Yankee Doodle, Red, White and Blue, and Hail Columbia. The arrangement by Civil War composer and arranger Claudio Grafulla comes from the Port Royal band books of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment Band.

From Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise-Music critic of The New Yorker.

“John Philip Sousa’s arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the manner of the Tannhäuser Overture, written for the Chicago World’s Fair. Sousa was adapting older material here; his International Congress Fantasy, an elaborate fantasia on national airs composed for Jacques Offenbach’s concerts at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, ends with much the same music. Sousa was young and little known at that time, and his slyly Wagnerian take on the future national anthem was eclipsed by the famously mediocre and expensive Centennial March that Wagner himself penned for the occasion. There are many more Wagnerian oddities from the early days of recording in the Library of Congress Jukebox, as I’ve pointed out before; perhaps the oddest is Sousa’s attempt at perking up the apocalyptic transformation music from Act III of Parsifal. “My two most popular pieces are the ‘Tannhäuser Overture’ and the ‘Stars and Stripes,'” Sousa said in 1899. “Wagner was a brass band man, anyway.”

But it took until 1916 for President Woodrow Wilson to sign an executive order formally designating the anthem’s status. All that remained was for Congress to pass an act confirming Wilson’s order and for Hoover to sign it.

“The Star Spangled Banner” had a strong supporter in John Philip Sousa who, in 1931, opined that besides Key’s “soul-stirring” words, “it is the spirit of the music that inspires.”

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.

Charles Linthicum

Read about the Evolution of the Star-Spangled Banner BY CLICKING HERE

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 Philip Sousa was asked, “do we need a new national anthem and, if we do, do you think there is much chance of ever getting one in the near future?”Sousa replied, “As our need of one, let me say that there are several nations that need a new national anthem much more than we do. Think of all the anthems that had to be scrapped buy nations as a result of the world war because they no longer had a king, a Kaiser, for a Czar.” Sousa was aware of the many protests against “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He said, some criticism there has been at times that Americans do not know the words of their national anthem, and that it is not suitable for March music. His comments: “In reply to that, I would ask: how many nations do no more than the first few lines of the national song? And what does it matter? It is the spirit of the music that is inspiring. So far as the Star-Spangled Banner not being suitable for marching, that is wrong. It makes splendid march music.”

Sousa stated his opinion that we would not have a new national anthem as result of a competition. Looking far into the future Sousa said that someday some great occasion might arise when the eyes of all Americans are directed toward one definite object there appears a genius captures the spirit of the moment. Only then, he said, might we have a new national anthem.

Sousa did enter the competition for a new anthem using the poem “America”, written by James Whitcomb Riley
You can find the poem here: AMERICA

In 1918, the members of the Maryland Society, United States Daughters of 1812 led the campaign for the official recognition for The Star-Spangled Banner. Their leader was Mrs. Ruben Ross Holloway. Their organization chose representative Charles Lithicum as their spokesman in Congress. It turned out to be a long fight in Congress but finally the bill was passed and signed into law on March 3, 1931

While on tour in 1930, Sousa was asked to prepare his opinion on the national anthem

Here is the complete text:
“Contests to obtain a new national anthem to supplant “The Star-Spangled Banner” should give little worry to those who love the soul-stirring song written by Francis Scott Key.

“When I was Director of the United States Marine Band, they was a concerted effort to establish a new national anthem. Because of my position with the Marine Band, I was told that I should do my share by entering the competition. Three very eminent judges considered the contributions of the contestants. I entered the contest, but I didn’t get the prize. Some time later I met the author of the poem who was awarded the prize, and he told me that he hadn’t sold a copy of his song. What I want to point out is that no matter how distinguished the judges maybe, they cannot judge for the people at large.”

It is true that James Whitcomb Riley’s “America” is quite suitable for anthem. I wrote the music for this poem. It has been very popular, but it has never once threatened “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

There has been at times criticism that Americans do not know the words of their national anthem. In reply let me ask how many nations no more than the first few lines of their national song? And what does it matter? It is the spirit of the music that inspires.

There are others who assert that our anthem is not suitable for march music. This is not true. “The Star-Spangled Banner” makes splendid march music. No matter how many critics are handsome may have, none of them can dispute the fact that it was a very satisfactory anthem during the world war played an important part in arousing enthusiasm and patriotism.

It would be as easy to make a stream run uphill as to secure a new national anthem as the result of a prize contest. The only possible chance that we might have a new national anthem would be when the eyes of all Americans are directed towards some particular cause and another genius captures the spirit of the moment in a thrilling song of patriotism. Until that time I do not believe the veneration for Francis Scott Key’s anthem will ever be displaced.

Establishing the National Anthem

On March 3, President Herbert C. Hoover signed the Act establishing Key’s poem and Smith’s music as the official anthem of the United States

The US Code 36, section 301 spells out regulations for the anthem and covers conduct during the playing. The code, however, did not specify an official text or musical arrangement, but left room for creative arrangements and interpretations. Therein lies the situation with performances today. Since there is no real code the anthem has been open to stylistic versions. These should be defined by the limits of custom and good taste but certainly some have pushed the envelope.

The standard instrumental version was unofficially established as the arrangement used by the U.S. service bands. However, other versions include: Igor Stravinsky’s 1941 version for orchestra and male chorus, Duke Ellington’s 1948 Cornell University arrangement, Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 electric guitar version, Jose Feliciano’s 1968 rendition, the 1991 version by the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin and Whitney Houston’s arrangement at the 1991 Super Bowl.

Burt Prelutsky, in his article The Star-Mangled Banner written in July 2005, writes: “…over the years, singers ranging from Kate Smith to Richard Tucker have been able to do it justice, merely by singing it simply and sincerely.  But at some point during the past ten years or so, certain female singers have decided that the only way to perform it was as if they were auditioning to provide orgasms for a porno soundtrack. Maybe I’m being too harsh.  Perhaps these song birds don’t intend any disrespect to the anthem.  Perhaps they simply don’t understand that patriotism means loving your country, not having sex with it.”

The performances in the past few decades years have ranged from the Marvin Gaye interpretation at a 1983 NBA all-Star game, the Christian version by Sandy Patti (July 4, 1986), the “Hollywood” version by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl to the interpretation by Roseanne Barr in July 1990. There are many others but the controversy of interpreting the anthem dates back to the 1940s. Igor Stravinsky’s orchestration caused such a sensation in Boston that the police confiscated the parts and arrested Stravinsky for “tampering with public property.” He was charged with changing the traditional harmonies.

In 1942 a National Anthem committee outlined some performance practices to be observed. It states, “It is inappropriate to make or use sophisticated “concert” versions of the National Anthem.” It also suggested the harmonic, tempo, rhythmic values and key. This version can be found in many community songbooks and hymnals as the “service version” of the “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Here is a link to that the 1942 Code for the performance of the anthem: 1942 CODE

Interesting enough a version for symphony was done by Ferde Grofé (arranger of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and composer of The Grand Canyon Suite). It was written in 1932 to be part of the elaborate, celebrity-studded opening of Radio City Music Hall in December 1932.

More about this piece can be found BY CLICKING HERE

Philip Kennicott Washington Post Staff Writer in his article “Changing Our Tune” wrote: “In 1971, a House joint resolution was introduced to bring some standardization to the anthem, setting down the words, the music and the harmonies, giving recommendations as to the best keys for singing (G, A-flat or A), and some vague guidelines about how “strange and bizarre harmonization should be certainly avoided.” It did allow, however, for considerable discretion (” . . . it is recognized that reasonable latitude must be allowed” and “the purpose of the performance and the available instruments will sometimes suggest different contrapuntal realizations of the basic harmonies.”) That resolution never became law, and in general, musical groups rely on versions of the anthem so old that in many cases no one is quite sure about their provenance. Tradition, and taste, are the primary guidelines. Therein lies the problem. Are national symbols open to interpretation? And if so, where is the line between interpretation and desecration? The debate is familiar when the symbol is the flag — With the national anthem, the situation is a bit messier. It’s clear that, say, screeching it as Roseanne Barr once did, and then holding your crotch, crosses some kind of threshold.”

Kennicott continues: “But there’s been considerable latitude for rethinking it musically, especially in popular contexts. The solo, R&B-inflected style, heard at innumerable ballgames, has become so filled with extraneous ornamentation, elision, slides and other egregious foofaraw, that one can hardly find the anthem through the trees. Some states have laws governing how it is performed. In Michigan, for instance, a 1931 law made it illegal to perform the anthem “except as an entire and separate composition or number and without embellishments of national or other melodies,” which, technically, makes it illegal to perform Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which uses a portion of the anthem as a tag line.”

The Department of Defense, in its Instructions number 1005.4 dated September 18, 1981 specifies the US Navy Band arrangement of the “The Star-Spangled Banner”as the official version to be used by all service bands on appropriate occasions. Click Here for that Regulation

Here is the US Marine Band performing the anthem as stated in protocol.

At the 2014 Super Bowl, Opera singer Renee Fleming performed it with the NJ Symphony and chorus of military singers.

One of the things that irk me is that while there is protocol for those listening to the anthem, there is none for those performing it. One only need to look through Youtube to find bands, both civilian AND military that do not stand while performing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I was told by one military bandsman “we don’t stand when in a concert setting.” I replied that I had been to ceremonies when veterans in wheelchairs struggled to get to their feet and that healthy military bandsmen should have no excuse. Since there is no official DoD Military directive for Military bands to stand when they play the anthem they will continue to sit. Shame on them-that’s right-Shame on them!

So the bottom line is that tradition, custom and good taste should be observed when making arrangements for any performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Having listened to countless versions of the anthem it easy to understand that our country, diverse as it is, would have so many interpretations of the song.


  1. Tapsbugler Tapsbugler Post author | March 3, 2019


  2. Mark Zaruba Mark Zaruba March 3, 2019

    Very thorough history of “The Star Spangled Banner”. I appreciate the research involved and effort placed in recording the many aspects leadind up to the current state of our National Anthem. Thank you for publishing this on the March 3, 1931 anniversary of its adoption as the official anthem of these United States.

  3. Terry Barbre Terry Barbre October 30, 2014

    My major gripe is the proliferation of fake digital bugles at military funerals. I am a former Army Band Commander but currently I am a public school band teacher who also plays bagpipes at many military funerals. I have witnessed several “bugle malfunctions” in the last few years. Even when they work correctly, I hate the artificial tone that comes out of those things. I have specified in my will that a real live bugle player is to play Taps at my funeral.

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