In 1931, a congressional resolution designated that "[t]he composition consisting of the words and music known as the Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem." Unfortunately there isn't any other clarifying language as to exactly what the lyrics are.

The most commonly-heard rendition includes only the first verse of Francis Key's poem "Defense of Fort McHenry" to the music written by John Stafford Smith, but his original poem included four verses, which of course can be put to the same music. Several decades after Key's poem was written, Oliver Holmes also wrote a fifth verse, which has often been put with the other four, sometimes even spliced in between the original third and fourth verses, as in Thomas Beveridge's rendition.

When the Star-Spangled Banner was made national anthem in 1931, what lyrics were meant to actually be part of the anthem?

1 Answer 1


There is no "exactly".

First, one minor clarification: the bill itself actually passed Congress in 1930 (April 21st), but wasn't signed into law until March 1st of 1931. What you linked there was just a restatement of that law verbatim in the US legal code. The original text is of course the same.

One thing you have to realize is that back then it was considered an old drinking song, and nothing about it was under copyright. That means there was no such thing as a single definitive version, like one might imagine a modern song release should have. Anyone could modify, add, or omit verses (or notes), and if other singers liked it enough, that became part of some renditions of the song.

The tune was (mostly) authored by an Englishman in 1773, and was probably never covered under any kind of copyright law in the USA. The lyrics were written as a poem in 1814, and by 1929 long out of any copyright they ever may have had. US Copyright was very much looser at the time, lasting only 28 years, and even then only if the author explicitly registered it and extended it.

So at the time, this was just a patriotic song that was being sung in saloons, at ballgames, and at other appropriate times, and it would have been sung with whatever lyrics, verses, and arrangement the singer(s) felt like singing. The phrase "the words and music known as" is in fact as specific as it was possible to refer to it.

All this being said, there was an attempt a making "standard version" in the 1910's.

By the early 20th century, there were various versions of the song in popular use. Seeking a singular, standard version, President Woodrow Wilson tasked the U.S. Bureau of Education with providing that official version. In response, the Bureau enlisted the help of five musicians to agree upon an arrangement. Those musicians were Walter Damrosch, Will Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonneck and John Philip Sousa. The standardized version that was voted upon by these five musicians premiered at Carnegie Hall on December 5, 1917, in a program that included Edward Elgar's Carillon and Gabriel Pierné's The Children's Crusade. The concert was put on by the Oratorio Society of New York and conducted by Walter Damrosch. An official handwritten version of the final votes of these five men has been found and shows all five men's votes tallied, measure by measure.

Of course nobody really had the authority to enforce this, so performers would stick to it only as much as they preferred it to other versions. As the old joke goes, the best thing about standards is there are so many to choose from.

  • 12
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    – justCal
    Commented Dec 15, 2020 at 5:00
  • 2
    @justCal - Oh my, it appears you are right. Well, thank you.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 15, 2020 at 13:37
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    While interesting background, I'm not sure how this is more than an excuse for the lawmakers simply failing to standardise the national anthem. It's a bit like if the law said the national flag was "a field of white stars on blue", and saying "well, different people put different numbers of stars there, so they couldn't have standardised it". Consider for instance Canada's national anthem, whose lyrics are specified by law in two different languages, replacing many earlier variations, including revisions to the standard version itself.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Dec 15, 2020 at 18:47
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    @T.E.D. Your answer says, in bold, that "the phrase is ... as specific as it was possible". I am saying that that statement is clearly false, as demonstrated by other countries who quite successfully state their national anthems more specifically, and by the common sense fact that lyrics can be chosen and written down. There may have been reasons they didn't want to specify a particular set of words, but your answer doesn't really give any; it just says there were lots of versions, and they never picked one when making it the official anthem.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Dec 15, 2020 at 20:15
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    @T.E.D. I still think that's a dubious use of "possible". They could have written one down, even if everyone ignored it. If you're saying that they didn't feel it was necessary to go through the effort of compiling a standard version, I think that's actually a more interesting answer. It would seem to have nothing to do with copyright, which you spend a lot of time on, and more to do with the fact that multiple equally acceptable versions were in currency, and perhaps to do with the political implications of adopting or not adopting certain verses or lyrics.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Dec 15, 2020 at 20:40

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