Dear Dr. Boli: Why “The Star-Spangled Banner”? Why not some simpler tune that doesn’t strain the vocal capabilities of a trained coloratura singer? —Sincerely, A Man Who Loves to Sing, but Not That Much.
Dear Sir: The melody to which Francis Scott Key’s lyrics were set was originally a drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heav’n,” and it is well known that, the higher the alcohol content in the blood, the greater is the perceived range of the voice. Thus by the small hours of the morning, frequenters of early American taverns believed themselves quite capable of doing justice to this song, whose original lyrics, according to earwitnesses’ letters and reports, ran thus:
To Anacreon in heav’n,
La la la la la laaa,
La la laaa la la laaa,
La la la la la la la.
As a drinking song it fulfills its purpose admirably, which is to make the singers thirsty so that they will order more drinks. Its adoption as our national anthem can be explained as a matter of timing. The year 1931 was near the end of Prohibition, an era during which, as every student of history knows, every American citizen spent every night of the week drinking cheap gin in a speakeasy. By 1931, America had been drinking for twelve years straight. It was the right song for the era.