Ever since “The Star-Spangled Banner” became our national anthem, Americans have been risking damage to their larynxes by straining to meet the musical demands of “o’er the la-and of the freeeee . …” Now, at last, it appears we know who to blame for the torturous notes.
It has long been accepted that the tune to which Francis Scott Key’s words were attached was lifted from “The Anacreontic Song,” a ditty composed about 1779 for the Anacreontic Society, a convivial group of London wits, musicians, and littérateurs . But the authorship of the tune has remained in question. In the July, 1977, issue of the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress , however, William Lichtenwanger—a retired official of the Library’s music division—maintained that he had pinned down the culprit. He was, Mr. Lichtenwanger says, John Stafford Smith, an associate of the Anacreontic Society who had been suspected for some time but, until now, never proved to be responsible. Diligently working through the ten volumes of the Recollections and Diaries of Richard John Samuel Stevens, a contemporary Society member, Mr. Lichtenwanger came across a reference to “The Anacreontic Song” which, in Stevens’ words, “Stafford Smith set to music.”
This seems to be pretty solid evidence, but for those who would be willing to run Stafford Smith out of town on a rail, were he alive and available, it should be pointed out in his favor that he was also the author of a collection of compositions called the Fifth Book of Canzonets, Canons, Catches, and Glees , a title for which much must be forgiven him.