Recently, Donald Trump had an angry exchange with the Canadian Prime Minister.

Justin Trudeau was upset with Trump for raising tariffs on imported steel goods.

Trump replied with something like “Well you guys burned down the White House”.

Not quite.

The White House was indeed burned down in 1814.

But Canada didn’t do it, in fact Canada didn’t exist as a country in 1814.

It was actually the British who burned down the White House, and the Capitol Building, and most of Washington DC.

It was in response to the US invading two years earlier and burning York, near Toronto.

Three weeks after burning Washington the British attacked Baltimore.

They sent a naval squadron into Chesapeake Bay, where the only thing standing in their way was Fort McHenry.

On board the British flagship, as an observer, was American poet Francis Scott Key.

He wrote the words to the American National Anthem about that battle.

Major George Armistead, in charge of Fort McHenry, refused to surrender.

So the British naval squadron unleashed everything they had, Armistead estimates between 1,500 to 1,800 shells and rockets.

All through the night, the fort was gradually turned into rubble, as Key later wrote:

“And the rockets’ red glare,

The bombs bursting in air.”

But in the morning, when the smoke cleared, the American flag still fluttered above the fort.

Fort McHenry hadn’t surrendered, so the naval squadron turned round and sailed away.

Key was so moved he wrote the opening lines everyone knows:

“Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light….

And he had a patriotic and moving poem.

But to make it catch the public’s imagination, in our words to make it ‘go viral’, he needed to turn it into something everyone could join in and sing.

He needed to put his poem to a tune.

And at that time the tune that everyone was singing, was called “The Anacreon Song”.

It was an English drinking song, written by John Stafford Smith around 1770.

It was the anthem of The Anacreontic Society, dedicated to the Greek philosopher who advocated the joys of love and wine.

Their main meeting place was The Crown and Anchor pub in the Strand.

Being a drinking song, it was perfect for everyone to join in all together.

Especially the rousing chorus at the end.

Which, in the original English version, was:

“And there with good fellows we’ll learn to entwine

The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.”

But which became, in the American version:

“O say does the star spangled banner yet wave,

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

And that’s what I like best.

You can get as fanciful and pretentious as you want in the lyrics.

But if you want it to catch on with ordinary people, you have to look to see what actually works with ordinary people.

And what works is the sort of music, or jokes, or stories, that you can all join in with in a pub.

Not a university debating chamber, or an art school film club.

Without that simple catchy drinking song, most of us would never have heard of Francis Scott Key’s poem.


It certainly wouldn’t be the national anthem of the most powerful country in the world.