Francis Scott Key (Above)was familiar with a popular drinking ditty that was so difficult to sing that it was used as an 18th century sobriety test. He converted the song into our national anthem, translating “And swear by old Styx, that we long shall entwine, the myrtle of Venus and Bacchus’ vine” into “Oh, say, does that star spangled banner yet wave, Ore the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Borrowed from a popular melody was common practice at the time, there was no copyright protection after all and popular melodies, were used and reused over and over again as a political song, a hymn, march tune, a drinking song, or a country dance etc.
The song used to create out national anthem dates from the mid-1770s and it was composed for a group of Londoners who had formed a social club that meet every other week in the winter. The meetings included a formal concert, a dinner, and a social time afterwards during which the members entertained each other by singing catches, glees, and amusing songs.
One of the club’s founders, Ralph Tomlinson (1744–1778), wrote the words in 1776, at about the same time he became president of the club.
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 who was born about 572 B.C. Anacreon wrote extensively about women and wine, and that was his main attraction to the London gentlemen. The name of the club became “The Anacreontic Society”, in honor of ‘that jolly old Grecian.’
And the title of the new song came from the opening line of the poem, “To Anacreon in Heaven”, John Stafford Smith wrote the music. He was not a member of the club but was the organist at the Chapel Royal. Tomlinson may have commissioned him to write the tune for his new lyrics.
By 1798 the song made its way to the states and was used in a tune called “Adams and Liberty—The Boston Patriotic Song.” And Thomas Jefferson was elected, another set of lyrics to the tune was entitled “Jefferson and Liberty.”
“Star Spangled Banner” become our national anthem officially in 1931.