There were about 150 years between the writing of the tune that would become the US national anthem and its official adoption as such.


It was written by British composer and organist John Stafford Smith in the late 1770s as the official song of London’s ‘Anacreon Society’, a city gentleman’s social club of which he was a member.

Back then the song was called ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’ and it became a popular tune in Britain and, eventually the fledgling United States.

Born in Gloucester, John Stafford Smith was the son of the city’s cathedral organist and would go on to become an organist himself, as well as a composer.

During his long life (he lived well into his 80s) he would also become known as one of England’s first musicologists, collecting manuscripts and music from as far back as the 12th century.

He also served as lay-vicar at Westminster Abbey and wrote books on musicology.

It was a few years after he wrote the society song that an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key penned a poem called ‘Defence of Fort M’Henry’ – about a British naval attack on Baltimore in 1812 – which would be fitted to the tune and published as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in 1814.

The newly-set tune became one of the young country’s most popular patriotic songs and over the years it would gain more prominence; the US Navy took it on as an anthem as early as 1889 and President Woodrow Wilson was a fan, waving the flag for it in 1916.

Other tunes vied for the top spot over the years, with ‘America the Beautiful’ and ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ (which has the same melody as ‘God Save The Queen’), both hugely popular patriotic songs then and now.

On 3 March 1931 congress signed a decree naming ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as the nation’s official anthem, today one of the most familiar national anthems in the world.

It was long-thought that the tune was simply a drinking song and it wasn’t until the 1970s that John Stafford Smith was identified as the anthem’s composer; a librarian in the US Library of Congress made the ‘discovery’.

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'To Anacreon in Heaven'


'The Star-Spangled Banner'


Michael BeekReviews Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.