"The Star-Spangled Banner”—From Song, to Anthem, to Icon

Photograph of the bill that designated the U.S. national anthem
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d 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 wash’d out their foul footstep’s 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 lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d 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.

As a song, “The Star-Spangled Banner” tells a very specific story and gives us an eyewitness’ perspective of the Battle of Baltimore. As an anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has become far more than a song celebrating Baltimore’s defenders. Unlike other patriotic airs of its time, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has become a popular, stirring, and often controversial icon in American culture. In a nation where freedom of expression is not simply a value, but a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, it has become a song through which many of us express our own perspectives on the American experience. As an anthem and icon, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its complicated history represents the voice of the American people. 

In 1814, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written simply as a song to celebrate Baltimore’s defenders. Reflecting on his experiences Francis Scott Key later remarked, “Then, in that hour of deliverance and joyful triumph, my heart spoke, ‘does not such a country and such defenders of their country deserve a song?’ was its question.” Key wrote what he saw felt, dedicating his words to “the inspirers of the song”—Baltimore’s defenders. As you might imagine, a song about a great victory, put to a familiar tune became quite popular in Baltimore where it was written, but as it spread rapidly across the country through newspapers and public performances,  “The Star-Spangled Banner” captured the imagination of the young Republic. 

Throughout the 19th century “The Star-Spangled Banner” remained the most prominent air used by Americans to express their patriotism, but early on Americans began to use the song as a means of political expression. In the decade leading up to the Civil War, abolitionists added a new verse to the song to promote their cause to bring an end to slavery in the United States. So too, did the temperance movement amend the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to promote their efforts to curb the use of alcohol and bring an end to the social ills and abuse related to it.  Its frequent use during the Civil War and by U.S. veterans groups in the late 19th century established “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a standard for patriotic celebrations. By 1899, the US Navy officially adopted the use of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for its formal ceremonies.  

As we entered the 20th century, the song took a prominent place not only in ceremony but in popular culture. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered its use at all military occasions.  And in 1918, “The Star-Spangled Banner” made its debut in the world of sports as it was performed at Game 1 of the World Series in Chicago. That same year, Maryland Congressman J. Charles Linthicum, introduced the first of six bills to make “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official anthem of the United States.  

Even before it became an anthem, the song had its detractors. It was derided as too militant, too obscure a reference, and too difficult to sing with its 12-tone range. But in 1930, the Veterans of Foreign Wars submitted a petition with 5,000,000 signatures in support of Linthicum’s latest bill. On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed into law House Resolution 14, making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem.  

Since then, it has continued to be performed in a variety of settings including ceremonies, sporting events, and organized protests. Just as the song has the power to unite Americans, it also presents the opportunity to express patriotism by addressing important national issues. From abolition to conscription during World War 1, to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century, to today, the song continues to be a powerful patriotic icon in exercising a political voice.   

Moreover, the great variety of musicians who have performed the national anthem have made it truly national bringing to the song a breadth of voices, personal experiences, and musical styles that reflect the diversity of the nation itself. In 1944, composer and refugee Igor Stravinsky composed a choral arrangement of the song to express his gratitude “at the prospect of becoming a citizen” and to promote patriotism during World War II. In 1968, Jose Feliciano gave a heartfelt folk-style performance. Derided by some for its departure from traditional styles, Feliciano described his performance as “an anthem of gratitude” for the United States. In 1969, guitarist and Army veteran Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of the national anthem shocked some but also expressed the spirit of the times. Since that time performers such as Marvin Gaye, Marc Anthony, Faith Hill, Lady Gaga, and Whitney Houston have brought a variety of styles to performing a very challenging piece, that is not only musically difficult, but is steeped in over 200 years of history and an important part of American culture.  

Last updated: January 13, 2023

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