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A View From The Overlook: A Tale Of Two Songs


Although it was a relatively short war, the War of 1812 was one of our most “Songniferous” wars. That is, it is difficult to visit certain battlefields of that war without certain songs running through your mind and memory.

I challenge anyone to visit Fort McHenry National Monument and Memorial and manage to keep Francis Scott Key’s immortal words and pirated music out of your head. (Granted, that during your park visit, the NPS is likely to nudge your internal jukebox with various renditions of “To Anacreon in Heaven” and its famous derivative.)

The same is true of the Chalmette Battlefield Unit of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana. The Chalmette Battlefield Park was established in 1907 to commemorate the site of the 1815 victory of General Andrew Jackson over British forces under the command of General Edward Packenham. If you are of a certain age (and even if you’re not) it is difficult to approach that battlefield or even think about it without the jaunty tune and lyrics of “The Battle of New Orleans” running through your memory bank.

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Can you sing the Star Spangled Banner? NPS photo of Defenders Day at Fort McHenry National Monument and Memorial

Oh Say Can You See

The “Star Spangled Banner” is unique among national anthems in that ordinary citizens cannot sing it. The anthem’s span of an octave-and-a-half requires that the singer have some classical or operatic training or face musical disaster. (You will note at the beginning of the World Series, when the anthem is played and the TV camera pans across the assembled baseball players, they are mouthing the words, not singing. They are not stupid.)

So why can’t we belt out our national anthem like the French and “La Marseilles” or the Germans and “Deutschland Uber Alles."

This is where things start to get mysterious, neighbors. We are told that Francis Scott Key set his immortal poem to the music of “Anacreon in Heaven,” “A popular drinking song of the period,” or so it is said.

A “popular” drinking song? Not bloody likely, mates. Most real drinking songs were composed by anonymous Scots and Irish drunks who were too inebriated to claim authorship. The drinking songs were easy to remember and easy to sing; visit any Irish bar on Friday night.

“Anacreon in Heaven,” on the other hand, is both difficult to sing and we know exactly who wrote it, a couple of 18th century English gentlemen, Ralph Tomlinson (lyrics) and John Stafford Smith (music). They were not exactly Rogers & Hammerstein.

So, who is this “Anacreon” and why is he in heaven if he is a drunk and a letch?

Anacreon was a 6th century BC Greek poet who celebrated wine, women, song, and generally having a good time. Understandably, he is listed as one of the nine great poets of classical Greece.

English gentlemen of the 18th century were provided a classical education, which meant that they were reasonably well-versed in the Latin and Greek classics which they could quote at the drop of a powdered wig, thus establishing their place in the 18th century pecking order.

Their education also included music or at least music appreciation, and, indeed, some of these gentry were talented amateur musicians. With this in mind, The Anacreontic Society was founded in 18th century London to foster music and good times. It was thought that they needed a club song, so our team of Tomlinson & Smith came up with the twin turkey of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” complete with turgid lyrics and difficult music. Here is the opening stanza:

To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee,

A few sons of harmony sent a petition that he their

inspirer 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

And beside I’ll instruct you, like me

To intertwine the myrtle of Venus

With Bacchus’s Vine!”

The song, which you can listen to on YouTube, goes on for many more dreary stanzas, unleavened by bawdiness or off-color wit.

So how did the music get to be so popular? Was it really unsingable?

One reason was that the music was apparently the only tune in town, sort of an early 19th century version of “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” The writer Daven Hiskey states that no less than 84 popular songs and broadsides were written to the music of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” including the nation’s first political campaign song, “Adams and Liberty.”

Francis Scott Key had used the music for his earlier (and forgotten) 1805 non-hit, “When the Warrior Returns," a song about our victory against the Barbary pirates.

So, how did our ancestors, most of whom were not trained opera singers, pull off the feat of singing this music and thus making it immensely popular? Were they prodigiously better musicians than you and I?

The philosopher of “Prairie Home Companion," Garrison Keillor, believes that the secret is the Key of F. According to Keillor, if you sing the “Star Spangled Banner” in the Key of F, you can make it all the way through.

But why was the music so difficult in the first place?

“If in doubt, ask a ranger!” So I asked Kayci Cook, former superintendent of Fort McHenry National Monument and Memorial. She is still puzzled as to why the song is so difficult, but had recently heard an interesting theory: “Anacreon in Heaven” may have been intended as a “Challenge” or Initiation song, one made deliberately difficult to make sure that prospective club members really had the musical chops for membership in the Society.

An interesting thought, neighbors.

The Battle Of New Orleans

Then we have that other musical bookend to the War of 1812: “The Battle of New Orleans.” The lyrics, matched to an authentic old fiddle tune, “The 8th of January”, (date of the battle) have the bombast and braggadocio of the expansionist, “manifest destiny” period of our history.

In 1814, we took a little trip

along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip

We took a little bacon and we took a little beans

And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.

The song goes on to tell about the complete and unequivocal American victory.

Traditional American folk song? No, it was written in 1936 by a creative high school history teacher, James C. Morris, who came up with the idea of using music to teach history. If there wasn’t a song available for a historical incident, Mr. Morris was quite capable of writing one, as in the case of the “Battle of New Orleans.”

Morris became so good at the country-western theme that in the 1950s he legally changed his name (and persona) to Jimmy Driftwood, country western star.

It is something of a mystery of why Johnny Horton’s version of “The Battle of New Orleans” became a ten-week leader for country western singles in 1959. After all, in 1959 the War of 1812 had been over for 144 years, the United Kingdom was our closest ally and was in the process of shedding the last of its empire and was bullying no one, so why pick on them? No one, not even Jimmy Driftwood could provide an answer for that one, perhaps the catchy fiddle tune.

Historians sniffed that the song was not historically accurate: The British did not “Run through the briars and they ran through the brambles and they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go, they ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch em.” The British were defeated but not routed. Their surviving commander, General John Lambert organized a careful withdrawal and General Jackson did not pursue.

Lambert even had the confidence (and humanity) for a Churchillian moment. When informed by anxious junior officers that there would not be enough boats to ferry both the troops and the escaped slaves to the waiting Royal Navy ships, he coolly replied, “They would hold the beach until everyone who wanted to go had gone.” He kept his promise.

The British, under Lambert, came roaring back. Denied New Orleans, they decided to take Mobile, Alabama. The entrance to Mobile Bay was defended by Fort Bowyer, which had withstood one British attack and had been reinforced by Andrew Jackson, who said, “Ten thousand men could not take Fort Bowyer.”

Lambert thought otherwise. The British invested Fort Bowyer on February 7 with 1,400 men and began a land-based siege with artillery and rockets. There was a possibility that Fort Bowyer might not fare as well as Fort McHenry.

On February 12, General Lambert tried a little psychological warfare. Under a flag of truce, he met with his American counterpart, Major William Lawrence, and sadly explained that the British had suffered greatly at New Orleans and that he might not be able to control his troops and the Americans might be massacred in a general assault. Major Lawrence was aware of the massacre of American POWs after the Battle of Raisin River, and took the hint. Fort Bowyer surrendered that day.

As Lambert prepared to attack Mobile itself, HMS Brazen sailed into Mobile Bay with the news of the signing of the peace treaty.

As for historical accuracy, the song is, after all, a country western song, and Jimmy Driftwood might be the first to admit that the American probably didn’t load an alligator with power and cannon balls and fire it at the British.

And what became of Jimmy Driftwood? Well, after all his musical triumphs, Mr. Driftwood went on to became a distinguished environmentalist! He had lived most of his life in the Ozarks and loved every inch of it, particularly the rivers and most particularly the Buffalo River. He labored long and hard to make the best of the Buffalo River into a national river under the National Park Service in order especially to prevent it from becoming just another Corps of Engineers Reservoir.

Like the Battle of New Orleans, it could have gone the other way, but Mr. Driftwood prevailed. To see what he helped preserve, Google up one of his songs, “The Beautiful Buffalo River.” In addition to his lyrics, you are going to see some darn fine scenery.



I really enjoy your articles. Entertaining & Educational. One of my late father's favorite songs to sing me at bedtime was 'Battle of New Orleans'. The other was 'Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier'. Not much of a lullaby, I'll admit, but still wonderful memories.

Thanks for another great story:-)

When I worked at the Buffalo National River back in the 1980s, I had the opportunity to visit with Jimmy Driftwood at his home in rural Arkansas and talk about the park. He was indeed a dedicated advocate for protecting the Buffalo River, and I found him to be a gracious and hospitable supporter of the park.

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