Even 'The Star-Spangled Banner' Had A First Draft

Jun 16, 2012
Originally published on June 16, 2012 2:22 pm

Monday is the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812. Americans may not know much about that war, but they do know a song the war inspired: "The Star-Spangled Banner." The first scratches of those phrases are on display at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

The original quill-and-ink manuscript was written by Francis Scott Key. He wrote the lyrics while being held aboard a British ship. Trying to work out a prisoner release, he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry — the rocket's red glare, bombs bursting in air.

The first draft has his edits in heavy, black ink.

"There are two corrections in it," says Burt Kummerow, president and CEO of the Historical Society. "The first one was in the very first line."

Where the song now says, "Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light," it originally had, "through the dawn's early light." The second edit is in the third stanza — today, usually only the first stanza is sung.

America's national anthem may have sounded familiar to some across the pond: It began as a British drinking song.

"Now, this is a polite drinking song," Kummerow says. "It's not one of these bawdy, everybody jumping on tables and stuff like that to sing."

Key was eventually set free after about two days with the British fleet. He finally penned "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Indian Queen Tavern, deep in the Maryland countryside.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Some U.S. history to mark now. This Monday will be the 200th anniversary of the start of the war of 1812. Americans may not know much about that war; they do know a song the war inspired and the first scratches of those phrases are on some sheets of paper that are now on display in Baltimore.

BURT KUMMEROW: My name is Burt Kummerow. I am president and CEO of the Maryland Historical Society and I had two hard boiled eggs for breakfast.

SIMON: Breakfast isn't historic. The document he's standing in front of is. This is the original written version.

KUMMEROW: He had really nice handwriting.

SIMON: Quill and ink manuscript.

KUMMEROW: I love his little dashes too. You know, he's got this big (swooshing sound).

SIMON: Of "The Star Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key. He wrote the lyrics while being held aboard a British ship where he was trying to work out a prisoner release, and watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry - the rocket's red glare, bombs bursting in air. The first draft has his edits in heavy, black ink.

KUMMEROW: And there are two corrections in it. The first one was in the very first line.

SIMON: With a little radio magic, we've tried to recreate the scene of Francis Scott Key writing and editing "The Star Spangled Banner."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBS BURSTING IN AIR)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Key, you land lover you. Are you still alive?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Francis Scott Key) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good. Stay put. The battle is almost over. Here's a quill to keep you busy. Right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Humming the Star Spangled Banner) Boy, that song is catchy. Hmm, what to do, what to do. Oh. Oh, say can you see through the dawn's early light. Through...hmm. Not quite the right preposition. Beneath? By? By. That's it. Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light? What so proudly we hailed...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

SIMON: We'll spare you the rest of that particular rendition as our Francis Scott Key decided to sing. A lot of people may have heard what sounds like British propaganda, but the music in America's national anthem began as a British drinking song. Burt Kummerow says...

KUMMEROW: It was, indeed. Now, this is a polite drinking song. It's not one of these bawdy, everybody jumping on tables and stuff like that to sing.

SIMON: Francis Scott Key was eventually set free.

KUMMEROW: He spent the better part of two days with the British fleet before he was released.

SIMON: He finally penned "The Star-Spangled Banner" now on display at the Maryland Historical Society at the Indian Queen Tavern, deep in the Maryland countryside. Bottoms up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.