Friday, August 12, 2016

Our National Anthem's Tune Started as a British Drinking Song

How many modern Americans know the original song the "Star-Spangled Banner" was based on? Francis Scott Key wrote his moving poem after watching the siege of Fort McHenry in 1814, at his joy of seeing the flag still flying over the fort.  The tune he stole for it, though, had origins less noble than you might imagine.

It was originally called "To Anachreon in Heaven," dedicated to an ancient Greek erotic poet who was particularly fond of feasts dedicated to Bacchus and their accompanying "wine & wenches", and was a popular British drinking song the colonists brought to America.

Hum along to the tune of this song and you may find it mighty familiar.

Words: Ralph Tomlinson
Tune: John Stafford Smith, 1771 (?)

The song was written for the Anacreontic Society, probably around 1771. The tune was was once thought to have been written by Dr Thomas Arnold, but is now thought to have been written "collectively" by members of the society, led by John Stafford Smith (who now usually gets the credit). The society met every two weeks to get drunk, sing songs and to indulge in some debauchery. Anacreon himself was a Greek poet from about 570 BC who was noted for his erotic poetry (in the Anacreontic style that he established) and his drinking songs.


The words changed slightly over the years but this is the well researched, cross-referenced version from the Wiki article:

To Anacreon in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That he their Inspirer and Patron would be;
When this answer arriv'd from the Jolly Old Grecian
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
"no longer be mute,
"I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
"And, besides I'll instruct you, like me, to intwine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."
The news through Olympus immediately flew;
When Old Thunder pretended to give himself Airs.
"If these Mortals are suffer'd their Scheme to pursue,
"The Devil a Goddess will stay above Stairs.
"Hark! already they cry,
"In transports of Joy,
"Away to the Sons of Anacreon we'll fly,[31]
"And there, with good Fellows, we'll learn to intwine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine.
"The Yellow-Hair'd God and his nine fusty Maids,
"From Helicon's banks will incontinent flee,[32]
"Idalia will boast but of tenantless Shades,
"And the bi-forked Hill a mere Desart will be
"My Thunder no fear on't,
"Shall soon do it's Errand,
"And dam'me! I'll swinge the Ringleaders, I warrant.
"I'll trim the young Dogs, for thus daring to twine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."
Apollo rose up, and said, "Pry'thee ne'er quarrel,
"Good King of the Gods, with my Vot'ries below:
"Your Thunder is useless"—then shewing his Laurel,
Cry'd "Sic evitabile fulmen,[33] you know!
"Then over each head
"My Laurels I'll spread;
"So my Sons from your Crackers no Mischief shall dread,
"Whilst snug in their Club-Room, they jovially twine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."
Next Momus got up with his risible Phiz,
And swore with Apollo he'd chearfully join—
"The full Tide of Harmony still shall be his,
"But the Song, and the Catch, and the Laugh shall be mine.
"Then, Jove, be not jealous
"Of these honest fellows."
Cry'd Jove, "We relent, since the Truth you now tell us;
"And swear by Old Styx, that they long shall intwine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."
Ye Sons of Anacreon, then join Hand in Hand;
Preserve Unanimity, Friendship, and Love!
'Tis your's to support what's so happily plann'd;
You've the sanction of Gods, and the Fiat of Jove.
While thus we agree,
Our Toast let it be.
May our Club flourish happy, united, and free!
And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine.
The practice of stealing the melody from a popular song to write new lyrics was very common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of the hundreds of marching songs written during the Civil War, a large chunk of them were set to the same tune that everybody knew. ("The Ants Go Marching" is a more recent version of the one that seemed to be most frequently used) 

This has continued today, if you consider the entire foundation of Weird Al Yankovic's music career. And, as juvenile an example as this is...the Barney the Dinosaur theme song is based off "Yankee Doodle," a tune which is now almost 250 years old.

Art imitates art. Always.

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