"Our Flag Was Still There": The First Edition of America's Patriotic Song

The anonymous melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner" began life as a London drinking song, first published in 1780 and sung at the Crown and Anchor Tavern by members of the Anacreontic Society. (The composer may have been John Stafford Smith.) In September 1814, attorney Francis Scott Key (1780-1843) published a patriotic poem after the British navy abandoned the bombardment of Fort McHenry, and the American flag was seen to be still flying.

Commemorating what would be America's last war against England, the poem was called "The Defense of Fort McHenry," and by October it had been published in Baltimore with the accompanying music and retitled "The Star-Spangled Banner." The rare first edition (The New York Public Library's is one of only nine copies known to exist) was soon followed by numerous other printings; in 1931 it became the national anthem of the United States. The actual flag that inspired Key to write his poem "” full of shell holes "” can be seen at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Perhaps the most interesting anecdote about the first edition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is not its rarity, but rather, that the easiest way to identify this as a first edition is by the misspelling of the word "patriotic" (as "pariotic") on the sheet music's first page!


John Stafford Smith(?) (music); Francis Scott Key (lyrics). "The Star Spangled Banner: A Pariotic [sic] Song." First edition. Baltimore: Printed and sold at Carrs Music Store, 1814.
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Music Division.


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