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The True History (And Myths) Of America’s National Anthem

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Marc Ferris’ obsession with our nation’s anthem began nearly 20 years ago. Trying to bridge his love of history and music, he started researching “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a graduate history seminar at Stony Brook University. “When I found almost nothing about the song in print, I knew I was onto something,” says Ferris, who grew up in Scarsdale. 

Through dogged persistence and research, Ferris soon became an expert on all things national anthem. “I visited archives across Washington, DC, and Baltimore and copied so many documents that if stacked, the pile would reach my thigh,” he says. In 2012, he decided to dust off that pile and get to work writing a book. Last year, his narrative history of the anthem, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem, was published. 

Here, Ferris sets the record straight on national anthem myths. 

Myth: Francis Scott Key penned a poem that someone else later matched with the melody of a song that originated in England called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” 

Truth: Key purposely fit the four verses that later became known as the national anthem to this popular patriotic tune—a common practice poets used at the time. Baltimore actor Ferdinand Durang can be credited for the confusion; he took advantage of Key’s modesty and claimed credit for pairing the verse and tune.

Myth: Key called his poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” 

Truth: Key’s original manuscript has no title. Someone other than Key brought it to the offices of the Baltimore American newspaper, where the printer affixed this title to a broadside. Thomas Carr, who issued the initial sheet music version, called it “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

Scarsdale’s Marc Ferris sets the record straight on America’s national anthem.

An aerial view of Fort McHenry 

Myth: The song glorifies war. 

Truth: Key opposed the War of 1812 but participated in the futile defense of Washington, DC, three weeks before the Battle of Baltimore. The lines “rocket’s red glare” and “bomb bursting in air” (as he wrote them) merely described what he observed as the British Navy shelled Fort McHenry. The fourth verse reveals his true, qualified take on warfare: “then conquer we must, when our cause it is just.”

Myth: The first performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a sporting event was during the 1918 World Series. 

Truth: The first documented instance of the song being performed at a ball game is 1862 in Brooklyn. Several newspaper accounts in the 1890s contain colorful descriptions of bands playing the future anthem at opening day ceremonies. When the song played at the 1899 Army-Navy football game, the entire audience stood in reverence.

Myth: Jimi Hendrix played the first controversial version of the anthem at Woodstock in 1969. 

Truth: Ragtime pianists in the 1890s and jazz bands in the 1900s performed non-traditional versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Aretha Franklin performed the first contested “soul-spangled” version at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Hendrix added the anthem to his live show that same year.    

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