Behind the lyrics of 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

By Jessie Campisi and AJ Willingham, CNN

It’s a song every American has heard countless times – and can probably recite by heart. But how much do you really know about our national anthem? Let’s take a line-by-line tour of the history and meaning behind the lyrics.

The basics

Like so many famous songs of yore, "The Star-Spangled Banner" started as a poem, called “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” It was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 during the War of 1812. The stanzas recount the Battle of Baltimore, a days-long siege between British and American forces.

The poem was set to a tune called “The Anacreontic Song,” which was composed in the late 1700s by a man named John Stafford Smith. The song was linked to the Anacreontic Society, which was an amateur musician’s and singer’s club named after the Greek poet Anacreon.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t actually adopted as the official anthem of the United States until 1931, though it was already popular and had already been used by several American institutions by then.

Meet the experts

Here are the experts who will help us dig into the song:

Mark Clague is an associate professor of musicology and American culture at the University of Michigan and a co-founder of the Star Spangled Music Foundation.

Marc Leepson is an American journalist and historian who has written several books, including a biography of Francis Scott Key.

Alan Taylor is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who specializes in the American colonial revolution and early republic.

The song

Select a highlighted lyric to learn more.

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
Clague: Instead of being spelled “oh,” this is the vocative case. It’s the biggest typo that one sees in any recitation of the lyrics.
On the night of September 13, 1814, Key witnessed part of the Battle of Baltimore from aboard a British war ship, where he was being held as a strategic prisoner. The next morning, he looked out and saw the flag rising above Fort McHenry, which moved him to write the poem.

Clague: He can’t see it without light, and “dawn” and “light” become symbols – a sense of beaconing and lightness – of hope, goodness and optimism. The energy of the new nation is already being foreshadowed.
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
The flag he saw wasn’t the flag we saw. It wasn’t until 1818 that Congress decided the flag would have 13 stripes and an additional star for each new state.

Clague: One interesting thing is the flag that Key’s looking at – this flag had 15 stripes and 15 stars.
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Clague: “Rocket” refers to the new Congreve rockets on the brand-new British bomb ships. They’re the most sophisticated naval weapons on the planet at the time.
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
This is the most important line of the poem, and a climactic line in the song.

Leepson: This is self-evident. It’s the crux of the whole song. They didn’t know until they saw the flag that we’d won, so this is the genesis of the poem.
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Leepson: It’s interesting that it’s a question. It’s rhetorical, and it’s part of poetic construction to end the verse with a question.

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
Leepson: The “haughty host” is a derogatory description of the British.
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Leepson: This is about the flag and its movement, standing over Fort McHenry and blowing in the wind. Key is leading up to the fact that the flag was there before the bombing.
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
’Tis the star-spangled banner - O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
You’ll notice the punctuation of the last line changes – and that’s important.

Leepson: After the battle, the firing stopped and there was dead silence. They didn’t know who won. But instantly, they saw the flag was still there and realized that we won. What better way to show that than to put an exclamation point.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
The third verse is probably the most historically problematic verse. Key was a slave-owner with anti-abolitionist views, and in this verse he mentions slaves and their role in the battle – on both the American and British side.

Leepson: You have to read the first three lines of this stanza together. I think Key’s talking about the Americans who went to the British side, who were predominantly enslaved people.
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
Taylor: This part isn’t meant as pro-slavery language. It’s referring to the British-poisoned ground – their polluting presence on American soil.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
Clague: Hirelings were the professional British troops. Key’s mocking them for doing it for the money, along with their stealing and ransoming. They were like pirates. And I think “slaves” is a reference to the Colonial Marines, who were slaves held captive by the Americans that escaped and were offered the opportunity to fight on the British side to earn freedom.
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
Leepson:To me, that’s Key reacting as a slave owner. [The slaves leaving to join the British] is the unpatriotic act that he calls the “perilous flight,” and he threatens them with the “gloom of the grave.” To summarize his feelings about it: At the very least, these are not the sentiments of a man who has warm feelings about slaves or enslaved people and those who flew to the side of the British.
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Clague: This whole stanza was cut from the National Anthem because of its mocking of the British. When we became allies with them in WWII, the verse drops out of use in “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
There is some contention over the word usage here.

Leepson: I have a problem with the word “freemen.” He’s talking about white people. If you were an enslaved person, you’re not inclined to think “freemen” is accurate.

Clague: It was a racist era, and we can’t change the fact that many of our founding documents have racism at their heart, but for me, “freemen” refers to whites and blacks.
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Leepson: This is plain-old American exceptionalism.

Taylor: There are religious references in a bland, conventional way. Almost everybody -- even people who didn’t go to church – believed there was a God and that God was on their side.
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto - “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Leepson: In the first line, Key uses “freemen,” and three lines later, he uses “us.” But “us” doesn’t include African-Americans. But I don’t think this poem is pro-slavery as much as it’s anti-slaves who went to the British side. And, again, “the land of the free” excludes a million enslaved people, several of whom Key himself owned.

Clague: The lyric ends with triumph and optimism, going from a question in the first stanza to ending with an exclamation point. It’s a wave of patriotism that sweeps the country, and the exclamation is a guide to the future in some ways.

This lyric, which to us today feels like a sacred statement of who we are as a nation, in 1814 is a vision of a founding son for what he hopes the nation can become. And in some ways, we’re still trying to live up to the hope and patriotism of our anthem. It’s not a statement of who we are, but what we hope to become.

Design and development by India Hayes and Curt Merrill