As American as Tarte Aux Pommes! Celebrating the Fourth With Some American Music

What can be more "American" than to celebrate the Fourth of July with a hot dog, a beer, and a stirring rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner"? Dang, my throat gets dry and my eyes moist just thinking about it.


Except that the slim sausage served in a roll that we call a "hot dog" was invented in Germany. (In Frankfurt, pork sausages served up in buns -- "frankfurters" -- have been a local finger-food since the thirteenth century. In Vienna -- "Wien" in German -- a pork and beef sausage eaten in a bun is called a "wiener.")

There's nothing particularly "American" about beer, either. In fact, beer is a universal drink: it is the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage and after water and tea the third most popular drink on the planet. (The invention of beer very likely dates back to the early Neolithic era -- ca. 9500 B.C.E. -- and while we cannot know exactly who invented it, we can be pretty sure that he would view the bulk of the brews mass-produced in the U.S. of A. with appropriate disdain, noting that any fluid that looks and tastes the same coming out as it did going in is probably not worth ingesting in the first place.)

So much for hot dogs and beer being, in any way, intrinsically "American." Well, at least we have "The Star Spangled Banner," a national anthem we can be proud of even if its huge melodic range makes it almost impossible to sing. (This, of course, doesn't stop folks from trying to sing it. Few tortures outside of shopping for bathing suits can be more exquisitely painful than listening to the strangled, canine ululations of pop divas attempting to "sing" "The Star Spangled Banner" before sporting events.)

Anyway, "The Star Spangled Banner" -- which has been the official national anthem of the United States since an act of Congress made it so on March 3, 1931 -- would seem to be a truly American classic.

Except it's not.

Yes, the lyrics -- the "words" -- are American enough. They are drawn from a poem entitled "Defence [sic] of Fort McHenry," written in 1814 by a 35-year-old layer named Francis Scott Key after witnessing the fort's bombardment by the British Royal Navy during the War of 1812. As for the music, it is as American as spotted dick, which is to say that it is not American at all but rather, 100 percent English, as in England, as in the same good folks who bombarded Fort McHenry in the first place.


"The Star Spangled Banner" is a "contrafactum": a song in which a pre-existing melody is fitted out with new words. The beauty of a contrafactum is that it is instantly "learnable" because it uses music we (presumably) already know. And while contrafacta were more common in a pre-electronic, print-dominated age, we are still surrounded with them; heck, Allan Sherman and "Weird Al" Yankovic made their careers creating contrafacta.

The "pre-existing pop-tune" on which "The Star Spangled Banner" is based is an English song in praise of wine entitled "The Anacreontic Song" (which is also known by its incipit -- or "first words" -- as "To Anacreon in Heaven"). The music was written by a teenager named John Stafford Smith in the mid-1760's as the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a London-based gentlemen's club for amateur musicians. The first verse -- the words were written by an amateur poet named Ralph Tomlinson -- goes like this:

To Anacreon, in heav'n, where he sat in full glee,

A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
That he their inspirer and patron would be,
When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:

"Voice, fiddle, and flute, no longer be mute,
I'll lend you my name and inspire you to boot;
And, besides, I'll instruct you like me to intwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus' vine,
And, besides, I'll instruct you like me to intwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus' vine."

(Our suggestion to Mr. Tomlinson: do not quit your day gig.)

The popularity of this ditty quickly spread beyond the confines of the Anacreontic Society clubhouse. Various new lyrics were appended to it, including several patriotic versions in the brand-new United Stated of America. The most popular of the pre-Francis Scott Key versions was one entitled "Adams and Liberty," which was written by the Bostonian Robert Treat Paine Jr. in 1798.

So much for "The Star Spangled Banner" being inherently -- intrinsically -- "American." Which should make us wonder why this not-very-easy-to-sing song was declared the official national anthem over its patriotic rivals, "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" and :My Country 'Tis of Thee," each of which had been considered a de facto national anthem for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The answer is that both "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee" are contrafacta as well, contrafacta based not on an obscure drinking song but on important English anthems. Columbia the Gem of the Ocean, its words written in 1843 by David T. Shaw, is based on an English patriotic song entitled "Britannia, the Pride of the Ocean. And as we all should know, "My Country 'Tis of Thee," with its thirteen verses of words written by Samuel Francis Smith in 1831, is based on the English national anthem itself, "God Save the Queen" (or "King," depending).

Personally, I take comfort in the international origins of so many of the traditions we now deem as being "American." We are reminded that ours is a melting-pot culture, and that diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance are our great strengths. So pass them dogs, load 'em with kraut, pop a brewski, sing about the Banner and know that collectively, it doesn't get any more American than this!