Francis Scott Key intended his verses to be song lyrics, not poetry.
“The Star Spangled-Banner” was not a poem set to a melody years later. Although Key was an amateur poet and not a songwriter, when he composed his verses, he intended them to accompany a popular song of the day.
Key was not imprisoned on a British warship when he penned his verses.
In his capacity as a Washington, D.C., lawyer, Key had been dispatched by President James Madison on a mission to Baltimore to negotiate for the release of Dr. William Beanes, a prominent surgeon captured at the Battle of Bladensburg.
The song was not originally entitled “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
When Key scrawled his lyrics on the back of a letter he pulled from his pocket on the morning of September 14, he did not give them any title. Within a week, Key’s verses were printed on broadsides and in Baltimore newspapers under the title “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” In November, a Baltimore music store printed the patriotic song with sheet music for the first time under the more lyrical title “The Star-Spangled Banner.
Key was a one-hit wonder who might have been tone deaf.
Key was much more adept in his legal day job than he was as an amateur poet. Most of the odes he composed were never meant to be seen beyond family and friends, and none came remotely close to realizing the popular fame of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In addition to being a middling poet, Key also had a hard time carrying a tune. “Key’s family said he was not musical,” Leepson says, “which means he likely was tone deaf.”
In 1861, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. added a verse. Despite using the words “the land of the free,” Francis Scott Key had been a slave owner, and members of the Confederate Army wanted to claim his anthem. Holmes, an influential writer from Boston, wrote new lyrics advocating that American slaves be unchained. Holmes’ addition now appears in most official publications of the lyrics.