By Tom Marshall
With July 4 just around the corner, Americans are warming up their vocal cords in an attempt to sing our National Anthem in celebration of our country’s 226th birthday. If you are like me, it is a sticky part of attending the day’s celebration—it’s not the easiest tune to sing.
The song is credited to Francis Scott Key. As it turns out, his great-great-grandson, George Key, lived for many years in San Clemente and later San Juan Capistrano.
A couple years ago, during a San Clemente Historical Society Oral History video recording, I asked George, “Why did your great-great-great-grandfather write such a complicated song?”
“He didn’t write the music, just the lyrics from his poem,” George reminded me. “The music is from a tune composed for an English gentlemen’s club dedicated to wine, women and song.”
Sounds as if they wrote it after having a few—glasses of wine, that is. Why they selected that music is lost to the past.
It’s kind of a sketchy past for our National Anthem, but then again, it is not out of character with other events from our country’s founding.
For instance, the Pilgrims have usually been portrayed as kind of pious, stuffed shirts who took little joy in life. While life was tough for the religious freedom-seekers, they also had a fun side to their collective persona.
It is well-documented that the Pilgrims enjoyed sports. Games of strength and foot races were very much a part of their celebrations. They challenged the Native Americans to games of skill such as archery.
Also of note, the Pilgrims occasionally enjoyed a drink or three. The National Geographic once reported that on their monthslong journey from England, the Pilgrims drank beer instead of water. Potable water couldn’t be obtained en route, and even water brought from England often wasn’t the best. So, beer it was.
Either the journey took longer than planned or they drank more than expected, but they ran out of beer.
Originally headed to what is today the Carolinas, the Pilgrims diverted to the closer land mass at Plymouth Rock in hopes of finding grain to make more brew. So, there you have it, our great nation was founded on a beer run.
No wonder Key’s poem began with “Oh, say can you see?”
Tom Marshall is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.
Editor’s Note: This column has been updated to reflect that Francis Scott Key was George Key’s great-great-grandfather. Francis Scott Key was also Georgia Key Smith’s great-great-great-grandfather.
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