The National Drinking Song

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The Star Spangled Banner didn’t begin with bombs bursting in air, it began with veins bursting in noses.

No, I don’t mean the stirring martial lyrics written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, but the melody he borrowed.smith and key

The tune Key set his words to was an old English drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven, written in 1780 by John Stafford Smith. It was the official song of the Anacreontic Society of London and was sung at the beginning of club meetings by all club members.anacreon gerome

Anacreon was a Greek poet of wine, women and song who died in 478 B.C. at the age of 86, from choking on a grape seed.

The club celebrated the grape, also.anacreontic society

Although, rather than wine, women and song, the Anacreontic Society seems more like booze, floozies and caterwauling. Imagine everyone at your local tavern or strip club getting up and singing a theme song before opening for business.

The society met every other week at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand, London, for a concert, dinner and a night of carousing. Each concert was formally opened by this song, performed by the president and joined by the company on refrain lines.

The curious Duchess of Devonshire, barred from the society by its all-male membership rules (barmaids were allowed, since they weren’t members), sometimes hid in a secret room under the stage in the tavern to hear the goings-on, enjoying the bawdy songs that were sung. Unfortunately, the duchess was a dampening influence on the society. Because the men were mortified that a woman of rank would hear them being so obscene, they disbanded in 1786 rather than continue, never knowing when the duchess would be in obscure attendance.fortmchenry_attack

Twenty-eight years later, Key penned the more familiar words during the siege of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore, on Sept. 13 and 14, 1814. The song was formally adopted as our national anthem by Congress in 1931.

For those who are curious about such things, these are the original words, or the first and last stanza, anyway, written by society president Ralph Tomlinson to Smith’s tune. Try singing it at the next baseball game.

To Anacreon in Heaven

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 —

(Refrain) “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 entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.

And besides, I’ll instruct you like me to entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.”

Ye sons of Anacreon, then, join hand in hand:

Preserve unanimity, friendship and love;

’Tis yours to support what’s so happily planned:

You’ve the sanction of gods and the fiat of Jove,

(Refrain) While thus we agree, our toast let it be

May our club flourish happy, united and free!

And long may the sons of Anacreon entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.

And long may the sons of Anacreon entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.

3 comments
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  2. Philipp said:

    Dear Richard Nilsen,
    Could you tell me who the artist of the first drawing is, right underneath the title?

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