O say can you sing a different patriotic song?
On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional act that made Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official national anthem of the United States. The American military had adopted Key's song as an official part of their ceremonies as early as the 1890s, but the song that commemorated American victory at the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 was far from the only contender for National Anthem status by the early 20th century. The Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music, housed in the museum's Archives Center, contains the sheet music for a number of patriotic songs and compilations that were hugely popular anthems in their own time.
British soldiers were singing "Yankee Doodle" to mock their supposedly ragged and bumbling colonial counterparts as early as the French and Indian War (1754-1763), with different lyrics, of course. The term "doodle" actually refers to someone who is foppish, or a fool. But, according to legend, as soon as the American Revolution began, the American Continental Army adopted the song for their own, singing a rousing chorus of "Yankee Doodle" as they pushed the defeated British troops back to Boston after the Battle of Lexington and Concord. When General Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, "Yankee Doodle" was likely one of many musical pieces played to mark the event.
Listen to a 1910 version of the song from the Library of Congress's National Jukebox.
The tune to "Hail Columbia!" was written by a German immigrant named Philip Phile who titled his piece "President’s March." It was first played ceremonially for George Washington as he entered Trenton, New Jersey, in April 1789, on his way from his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia, to New York City to be inaugurated the first President of the United States.
About nine years later, the lyrics that would make the "President's March" into "Hail Columbia!" were written in the space of about 24 hours by Joseph Hopkinson, who was doing a favor for his friend Gilbert Fox. Fox was hosting a musical revue that wasn’t selling out, and he was desperate for an inspiring patriotic song to draw an audience. Fox approached Hopkinson to write one and the result, a day later, became "Hail Columbia!" The song made Fox's revue a huge success and rocketed "Hail Columbia!" to the top of the patriotic charts, where it reigned as the de facto national anthem until the 1890s. It is rarely played today.
You can hear the song in a 1906 recording.
"My Country 'Tis of Thee"
The lyrics for "My Country 'Tis of Thee" were written by the Rev. Samuel Francis Smith in 1831, while he was attending Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. For the melody, he used a song he found among some German music books provided by a friend, a famous American musician named Lowell Mason, but Smith likely didn’t realize that the tune he chose was already wildly popular the world over. Smith picked a melody that was then in use in no fewer than seven national anthems in Europe, including the British "God Save the King." His words and the melody premiered together for the first time at a children's church concert on July 4, 1831. The song quickly stuck in the popular imagination and has remained there ever since. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted "My Country 'Tis of Thee" on August 28, 1963, when he called upon Americans to "let freedom ring!"
Listen to a 1902 recording of the song.
"God Bless America"
"God Bless America" did not actually achieve a place in the pantheon of American patriotic tunes until after "The Star-Spangled Banner" was named the official national anthem, but its enduring popularity ensures it a place on this list. Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant to the United States, first wrote the words and music for "God Bless America" in 1918, but, unsatisfied with his work, he put the song in a drawer for 20 years. In the late 1930s, with another global war looming on the horizon, Berlin returned to "God Bless America" and updated his lyrics to address the current state of the world.
Nationally famous singer and radio personality Kate Smith premiered the song on her radio show on Armistice Day, November 11, 1938. The song was an instant hit and sales of the sheet music and recordings of the performance soared, prompting Berlin to found the God Bless America Foundation. Through that organization, all proceeds from "God Bless America" went to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.
"God Bless America" inspired another patriotic tune familiar to most Americans: Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land. Guthrie felt Berlin's song was too celebratory and overlooked many of the very real problems of poverty, joblessness, and social and economic injustice many Americans faced. In This Land is Your Land, Guthrie acknowledged these issues while still paying reverence to the natural beauty and diversity of the American landscape.
Want more on the history of the national anthem? Check out The Banner Yet Waves: 200 Years of Star-Spangled History.
Tory Altman is an education specialist and project coordinator for What it Means to Be American.