In 1931 the U.S. Congress designated The Star Spangled Banner the official U.S. national anthem. Francis Scott Key wrote the words as a poem entitled The Defense of Fort McHenry. The music is from a common English tune entitled To Anacreon in Heaven.
During the war of 1812, Key lived in Baltimore and worked as a lawyer. Baltimore was a strategic city guarded by Ft. McHenry, and in the Fall, 1814, a British fleet arrived to capture it. Although Key was not a soldier, he was selected to sail to the British fleet under a flag of truce to discuss an exchange of prisoners, one of which was Dr. William Beanes, an elderly and popular local physician.
Key convinced the British commanders to release Dr. Beanes, but during the negotiation Key overheard the British attack plans. Thus, he was forced to remain on a British vessel during the attack. Key wrote the poem after he observed the Americans successfully defend the fort, and thus save the city. Most historians agree that had Baltimore been captured, America would likely have lost the war.
Key gave the poem to his brother-in-law, Joseph Nicholson, who discovered that it could be sung to To Anacreaon In Heaven. Nicholson had it printed and within a few weeks copies began to appear in newspapers. It was first published nationally in November, 1814, by Washington Irving, who was then editor of The Analectic Magazine. It quickly became a popular patriotic song, and was most associated with military ceremonies throughout the nineteenth century.
In 1889 The Star Spangled Banner became the official song to be played at the raising of the U.S. Flag, and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at military occasions. It is unknown when the song was first played at athletic events, but during the 1918 World Series it was played during the seventh inning stretch. By the 1940s playing the song before baseball games had become commonplace, and this tradition quickly spread to other athletic events.
In 1929 a campaign emerged to select an official national anthem for the United States. Unofficially several songs had been used over the years including My Country ‘Tis of Thee and America the Beautiful. In 1931 the Congress chose the Star Spangled Banner at the urging of John Philip Sousa, who was then one of America’s most popular composers.
Modern performers frequently adapt the national anthem to fit unique musical styles. Among the first, and best known, of these adaptations is the instrumental version played by Jimi Hendrix at the Woodstock Music Festival. A version sung by Whitney Houston for the 1991 Super Bowl reached number 20 on the Billboard Charts, and is frequently cited as the anthem’s best modern performance. Because the song is notoriously difficult to perform, mistakes are a common even when played and sung by experienced musicians. In fact, a recent poll found that most Americans don’t know the correct lyrics or history of the song. Nevertheless, the American public overwhelmingly appreciates and respects the anthem, as it has become an enduring representation of the United States.