Do you know the history of the National Anthem?

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July 4, 2014 marks the 238th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Fireworks will illuminate the night sky, the rich smell of barbecue will be in the air and the country will be awash in red, white and blue splendor. Chances are the swelling melody of "The Star Spangled Banner" will be broadcast over the radio and on various firework display telecasts.

The national anthem is synonymous with the United States America, and its notes very well may be the patriotic glue that binds the country together. Although the lyrics and music of the song are widely known, many may be unfamiliar with the rich history behind the beloved tune.

A poem is born

America began its fight for independence from Great Britain in 1775, and the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 to identify the 13 colonies that succeeded in winning their independence from Britain. However, the battles with Britain stretched on. Fights over territories kept disputes between the British Empire and the newly formed United States raging on, and it was during one such fight, and not during the Revolutionary War as some may think, that "The Star Spangled Banner" was written.

The War of 1812 was declared by the United States to set right some of the issues that were not resolved after the Revolutionary War. Francis Scott Key was an American lawyer at the time of this war, negotiating for the release of an American hostage being held by the British. Although Key won the hostage's release, he was not able to leave the British fleet where the negotiations took place until the British completed their attack on Baltimore. Key witnessed the British fiery bombs on Ft. McHenry at Chesapeake Bay. Just before dawn on the morning of September 14, 1814, Key was said to have noticed a huge American flag still waving above Ft. McHenry in defiance to the British attack. This imagery helped inspire the words of a poem that eventually would become the national anthem.

Key penned the poem on the back of a letter he held in his pocket. After the battle was over and Key was released, he completed the poem at the Indian Queen Hotel, where he was staying. The poem was titled, "Defense of Fort M'Henry." The poem was put to music to fit the popular melody "The Anacreonic Song" by English composer John Stafford Smith. Key's brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H. Nicholson, anonymously made the first printing of the lyrics to the melody, and the song was printed in two newspapers. The song quickly became popular, and soon after, Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore, Maryland published the words and music under a new title, "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"The Star-Spangled Banner" takes off

"The Star-Spangled Banner" became one of the nation's most beloved patriotic songs in the 19th century. According to Smithsonian, the song gained special significance during the Civil War, a time when many Americans turned to music to express their feelings for the flag and the ideals and values it represented. The military used the song for ceremonial purposes, requiring it be played at the raising and lowering of the colors. But many versions of the song were used during these ceremonies and celebrations.

By the 20th century, President Woodrow Wilson wanted to establish a standard version, so he tasked the United States Bureau of Education to provide an official version. In response, the Bureau of Education enlisted the help of five musicians, including Walter Damrosch, Will Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonneck and John Philip Sousa, to agree on an arrangement. This new standardized version was first played on December 5, 1917, at Carnegie Hall.

It wasn't until March 3, 1931, that "The Star-Spangled Banner" became the official national anthem of the United States when President Herbert Hoover signed this designation into law.

This Fourth of July, people may be struck by the magnificence of the fireworks or the enjoyment of the parades. But as the music swells, they also can think about the significance of the events that inspired the creation of the country's national anthem.


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