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Francis Scott Key may have been tone deaf

Francis Scott Key may have been tone death according to author, Marc Leepson

Author Marc Leepson
Courtesy of Marc Leepson

FREDERICK, Md. – Most critics agree that The Star-Spangled-Banner is difficult to sing.

Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics after watching the Sept. 13-14, 1814 bombardment of Fort McHenry, located in the harbor of Baltimore, Md. In his biography “What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life ” Marc Leepson said Key may have been tone deaf.

“Up until relatively recently, historians believed Key was writing a poem that night because he was an amateur poet,” Leepson said, in a Tuesday interview. “He was not musical and he had never written a song in his life and he may have been tone deaf. Now opinion has changed. Back in that time period it was common for people to take lyrics and put them to a well-known tune. This tune was very well known.”

Originally entitled The Defence of Fort McHenry, the tune was wedded to a popular British melody, The Anacreon in Heaven. Key wrote the lyrics on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, while on an American truce ship anchored in the Patapsco River, Leepson said. At the time, there were many patriotic songs used by the military.

The Star-Spangled-Banner was first recognized for official use by the U.S. Navy in 1889, Leepson said. It became the national anthem as a result of the adoption of a congressional resolution on Marc 3, 1931, and was signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.

Leepson's new biography is the first one written about Key in more than 75 years. Other little-known facts examined in the book about Key, a Washington, DC, attorney who witnessed the 1814 bombardment of Fort McHenry, included his involvement as an advocate of shipping free African Americans back to Africa.

Leepson said Key was a member of The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, ACS, which promoted the idea of returning and transplanting African Americans as citizens of the colony of Liberia, which the organization helped found. In the book, Leepson details the activities of Key, along with other ACS members, which included John Randolph, Charles Fenton Mercer, Henry Clay and Richard Bland Lee, who argued that Liberia would provide greater freedom for African Americans, than they had in the U.S.

Leepson said that Key and other members of the organization believed that returning African Americans to Africa would also help end slave trafficking—but, it didn't.. Slavery would continue to be an issue in American politics, until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

Key's legal career included arguing more than 100 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, Leepson said. In some cases, Key represented the legal rights of freed African Americans, but in other cases, the Maryland-born attorney, represented the rights of owners of runaway slaves.

“Up until relatively recently, historians believed Key was writing a poem that night because he was an amateur poet,” Leepson said. “He was not musical and he had never written a song in his life and he may have been tone deaf. Now opinion has changed. Back in that time period it was common for people to take lyrics and put them to a well-known tune. This tune was very well known.”

Key spoke about writing The Star-Spangled-Banner, in public, only once, 20 years later, Leepson said. At the time, the song was one of many patriotic tunes.

Leepson said Key wrote poems for family and friends, but he never wanted his work to be published. In the 1850s, after his death, a book of his poems was published, but “they were not very good,” Leepson said.

Key became an overnight success, and will forever be enshrined in the pantheon of famous American patriots. Of all of Key's descendants, only one would reach prominence for his written works, Leepson said. That individual, also born in Maryland, was novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Leepson's other works include “Desperate Engagement,” which details the Battle of the Monocacy;” “Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General;” “Flag: An American Biography;” and “Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built.”