Smith – The Star-Spangled Banner

by Max Derrickson

John Stafford Smith (1750-1836)

The Star-Spangled Banner

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The years following Baltimore’s city charter gave birth to an exceptional sailing vessel, the Baltimore Clipper. This sleek and “fast as wind” ship was used exclusively for trade, and was especially valuable for shipping perishables. It was also used to gain “wealth by stealth” in which enterprising clipper captains could easily plunder the clumsier trading ships on the high seas. Some called it privateering, but the British, heavily involved in the War of 1812, were so annoyed by these Baltimore boats that they named the city “a nest of pirates.”

In 1814, after having whipped Napoleon’s army and after sacking and burning Washington, DC, the British were feeling randy. They sought to put an end to these pesky pirate ships, and further their desire to keep stakes in America, by routing Baltimore. Fortunately, land troops were repelled by militia and angry Baltimore citizens, and the attack on Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore, gave rise to our national anthem.

“Oh, say does that Star Spangled
Banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and
the home of the brave?”
Francis Scott Key – The Star-Spangled Banner (1814)

Upon the maiming of Washington, an enraged citizen, Dr. Beanes, captured several British Naval soldiers by gunpoint. British officers responded by capturing their own back, and brought the good doctor along the way to capturing Baltimore.   Beanes’ close friend, Francis Scott Key, heard of the imprisonment, and set off to negotiate his release. The release was granted to transpire once Baltimore was safely in the hands of the British. At 6:00 a.m. on September 13, 1814, one of the most severe bombardments as yet in naval history took place on Fort McHenry, with Beanes and Key observing from a small boat. Flying above the fort was an impressive American flag, the largest made in the States to date. The bombing at last ended 25 hours later, and in the dawn and clearing smoke, the tattered flag still flew signaling that Baltimore would not be had, inspiring Key to pen “The Star Spangled Banner,” set to an anthem composed in England called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” It became our national anthem only in 1931.

The author of the tune was John Stafford Smith (1750-1836), an English composer and musicologist. The gift of this anthem hardly befits his importance. Years before Dr. Charles Burney wrote his General History of Music, Smith was busy collecting priceless manuscripts and doing scholarly research on ancient music. In 1779, Smith published A Collection of English Songs…Composed about the year 1500. Taken from MSS. of the same age. It was likely the first scholarly edition printed in England.