'Star-Spangled Banner' author may have been tone deaf: book

Thu Jul 3, 2014 5:01pm EDT
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By Jeffrey B. Roth

GETTYSBURG Pa. (Reuters) - The author of the "The Star-Spangled Banner," which will ring out at thousands of baseball games and parades across the United States this Independence Day weekend, may have been tone deaf, according to a new biography.

As the 200th anniversary of the famously difficult-to-sing anthem approaches, the book "What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life," by historian Marc Leepson reveals some little-known details about Key and his tribute to the "land of the free and the home of the brave."

It is well-known that Key, a Georgetown, Virginia, attorney, became a witness to the Sept. 13-14, 1814, British naval bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore after agreeing to help win the release of Maryland physician Dr. William Beanes.

Beanes had been taken prisoner by the British. With the blessing of President James Madison, Key, assisted by John Stuart Skinner, negotiated the doctor's release.

But because the three Americans had learned of the British battle plans, they were put under guard on an American truce ship in Baltimore Harbor in advance of the long night's cannon and rocket bombardment of Fort McHenry.

Seeing the large American flag by "rockets' red glare," Key was inspired to pen the poem "The Defence of Fort McHenry." Almost immediately, Key "wedded the lyrics to a popular British melody, 'The Anacreon in Heaven'," Leepson said.

"He was not musical and he had never written a song in his life and he may have been tone deaf," Leepson added.

The song, which was later re-titled "The Star-Spangled-Banner," quickly became popular but did not officially became the U.S. national anthem until 1931.   Continued...