LITTLE ROCK, Ark – The Star-Spangled Banner. Certainly it’s America’s national anthem, but July 4, Independence Day is that day where it carries that extra bit of weight. 

Written as a poem by Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and amateur poet who, famously, was inspired to write the poem after watching the flag continue to fly during the British shelling of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1812. 

The poem was named “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” reflecting American English of the time. While some may think that the tune was from a “British drinking song,” that is not quite the story. 

The tune came from “The Anacreon in Heaven,” (an-A-cree-on) a song sung by a London gentlemen’s club of musicians, the Anacreontic Society. Anacreontic was an ancient Greek poet who was famous for his drinking songs and poems, and the society would sing the song as part of an evening’s festivities, usually after dinner when the evening’s entertainment was about to be introduced.  

The melody, of course, remained, and it makes the song notoriously difficult to sing (the sort of song a musician’s club would use to demonstrate the range of performers), often tripping up unprepared singers with its musical range of an octave and a half. 

The trick is to start the song lower than you would normally sing, to give yourself the room you need for those tricky high notes. Practice helps as well. 

The song from Key’s poem is actually four verses, although it’s normally just the first verse sung in performance. 

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, 
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming, 
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, 
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming? 
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, 
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there; 
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave 
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? 

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep, 
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes, 
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep, 
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses? 
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam, 
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream: 
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave 
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. 

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore 
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion, 
A home and a country, should leave us no more? 
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution. 
No refuge could save the hireling and slave 
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: 
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, 
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. 

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand 
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation. 
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land 
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation! 
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, 
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’ 
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave 
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave! 

The lines in the poem about “dawn’s early light” and “twilight last gleaming” came from not knowing if Fort McHenry had survived the night’s bombing. Observers, including Key, seeing the flag, knew it had. 

The song officially became the national anthem in 1931, signed into law by President Herbert Hoover. During the House hearings on the suitability of the song, two singers performed it during a hearing to prove it was not too high-pitched to sing comfortably. 

United States code states that one must stand during the anthem, hat off, right hand over heart if observing, with military members or veterans in uniform saluting. If no flag is present, one is expected to face the music. Since this is U.S. code and not law, it is not mandatory to do these things.