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Francis Scott Key: Lawyer, Layman, Tone-Deaf Lyricist?

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Francis Scott Key Park includes a bronze bust of Francis Scott Key, wayside exhibits explaining his story, and an American flag depicting the year 1814 when Key penned his now famous poem.
Photo by Flickr user NCinDC
Francis Scott Key Park includes a bronze bust of Francis Scott Key, wayside exhibits explaining his story, and an American flag depicting the year 1814 when Key penned his now famous poem.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the song we now know as “The Star Spangled Banner.” Maryland native Francis Scott Key famously composed those legendary words after watching a massive fleet of British warships bombed Baltimore’s Fort McHenry.

But what isn’t so famous is something that sounds uncannily like “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” as the song was originally called:

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: "Voice, Fiddle, and Flute, no longer be mute, I'll lend you my name and inspire you to boot.

The Anacreontic Song” is an old English drinking tune to which — so the story goes — Key penned his legendary lyrics. (The lyrics to the original tune are below.) He didn’t come up with the melody himself because Francis Scott Key’s nickname could very well have been “Francis Scott Off-Key”!

“It goes to an interview that a reporter had with one of his grandchildren in the 1870s,” says Marc Leepson, author of the new book, What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life. “She said, ‘We considered our grandfather unmusical.’ Which I think might have meant tone-deaf.

“And so think of the irony! The song that more Americans know the words to than any other song except ‘Happy Birthday,’ was written by a man who was unmusical and may have been tone deaf!” Leepson says with a laugh.

In his new book, author Marc Leepson shows that Francis Scott Key (shown here in a portrait by Theodor Horydczak) was far more than just the author of what would become our national anthem. (Library of Congress)

But that’s not the only potentially surprising thing about Francis Scott Key. As Marc Leepson points out, there’s a lot the general public may not know about Frank. Like how he was a religious man, a lawyer, and a fellow who didn’t exactly relish being in the spotlight.

“He rarely, if ever, talked about writing that song,” Leepson says. “He only spoke in public once about it and that was 20 years later. He never was a congressman [or] a senator. He argued over 100 cases before the Supreme Court so he was an important figure in the early Republic. But he was a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.”

One thing Key was quite outspoken about was the issue of slavery.

“He came from a big Maryland slave-owning family; he owned slaves,” Leepson explains. “On the other hand, he was adamantly against slave-trafficking.”

Key also had a reputation in Washington for representing free blacks and freed slaves, gratis, in the courts. Yet he was a founding member of the American Colonization Society in 1816.

“It was formed here in Washington, D.C., to send free blacks, not slaves, to a colony in Africa that would become the nation of Liberia,” Leepson says. “It was a very controversial endeavor. Key and others who supported it said it would help eventually end slavery and it would also end slave-trafficking.

“But abolitionists hated the whole idea of colonization. African-Americans didn’t really go for it in a big way. By the [end] they had sent only about 15,000 free blacks back to Africa,” he goes on to say. “But you have to remember that when it started there were about a million slaves in the country. When the Civil War started there were four million. So it was really a drop in the bucket, these 15,000.”

Leepson says Key thought slave trafficking was “evil,” and as a deeply religious man, he took his notions of good and evil quite seriously. In fact, he’d considered entering the Episcopal priesthood, but he wrote in a letter that with such a growing family (he wound up having 11 children) he worried about being able to support them.

“But he was sort of like a lay minister,” Leepson says. “He visited the sick and gave counseling.”

In fact, he even baptized a child once in an emergency situation.

“Late at night, he was working and a couple banged on the door,” Leepson recounts. “They said they had a baby who was dying and they wanted to get him baptized and they couldn’t find the minister.”

Key baptized the child, who then ended up surviving.

“He was actually castigated by the Episcopal church for doing that, but he stood by his guns and said ‘What could I do?’” Leepson explains. “So he was a part of the fabric of Georgetown. He also helped start Christ Church in Georgetown.

“And so I think [Key’s] it’s a Georgetown/Washington story that people don’t know.”

Music: "The Anacreontic Song (To Anacreon in Heaven)" by Douglas Jimerson from George Washington: Portrait in Song

The Anacreontic Song - Lyrics

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