The Complete Oral History of “The Star Spangled Banner” (Fictionalized Slightly for Entertainment Value), by Lucas Gardner

The following is the complete oral history of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner.” Certain quotes and other elements have been fictionalized slightly for entertainment value.

Francis Scott Key (Writer of “The Star Spangled Banner”)

I was an amateur poet at the time and I was barely getting by. I was living in this shitty little one-bedroom, eating butter sandwiches. I really needed a hit song. I was so close to calling it quits, man. I remember I told Joseph (H. Nicholson), “I don’t know what I’m gonna do if I don’t break through soon, man. No one’s digging my stuff.”

Joseph H. Nicholson (Brother-in-law and close friend of Francis Scott Key)

Francis was a mess. He was writing great poems but no one was buyin’ what he was sellin’. He was getting disillusioned with the whole industry, and then he told me about this idea he had for a song.

Francis Scott Key

I remember after witnessing the attack on Fort McHenry, I went home and started writing this song about the flag. Of course I didn’t think it was gonna end up being my number-one hit. I was just fucking around, man. I don’t even remember writing it, I was so trashed. [Laughs]

Joseph H. Nicholson

Francis told me he was writing a song about the flag, and I’m like, “That’s not gonna sell, dude. That’s not sexy. That’s not cool. People aren’t gonna dig it.” Then he showed me the poem, which wasn’t quite finished, and I remember thinking, “This is a number-one song, right here. There’s nothing like this. This is groundbreaking shit, right here.” [Laughs]

Francis Scott Key

I remember I hit a big road block trying to think of a rhyme for “light.” So I call Joseph over, and my buddy John Stafford Smith, who was a kickass musician, and we just got wasted and started working it out. We stayed up all night. By 6 a.m. we still had nothing and I was ready to scrap the whole song, then out of nowhere John Stafford Smith looks at me and he just says, “Dude, fight.”

John Stafford Smith (Writer of the music for “The Star Spangled Banner”)

Once Francis got the “Through the perilous fight” line down on paper, that’s when I really said, “We got something here, man. This song is gonna be everywhere. You’re gonna hear this thing everywhere. This is a million-dollar song.”

Francis Scott Key

John Stafford Smith said I could set “The Star Spangled Banner” to the music for his song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which he’d written years earlier. I’d always loved that tune, and when he told me I could have it I was like, “Are you kidding me? I can just have it?” That’s when I started to really get excited about “The Star Spangled Banner.”

John Stafford Smith

So we book this gig in Maryland playing this little DIY venue. I get there and watch a few acts and the crowd is tearing them to shreds. Booing them off stage, throwing bottles, all of it. So I’m thinking, “These kids are gonna eat us alive.” Then Francis Scott Key gets there and he’s wasted out of his mind. He’s an absolute mess. He can’t even talk. I was ready for an awful show. Then finally we go up, I start playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” and Francis just comes alive. He puts on this insane performance and the crowd goes absolutely fucking insane. They’d never seen anything like it. I remember at one point Francis is singing in the crowd and this kid—he must have been 15, 16—touches Francis’ hand and starts screaming, “I touched him! I touched Francis Scott Key!”

Francis Scott Key

I barely remember that first performance, I just remember the feeling. I remember them chanting my name, trying to rush me, touching me, and just screaming their brains out. It was electric, man.

John Stafford Smith

I can tell you this: Every kid who saw Francis Scott Key play that night went home and wrote a poem about a flag.

James Madison (Fourth president of the United States)

I saw Francis play that night. He blew me away. So I go up to him after the show and I say, “Hey man, I love your stuff,” and Francis says to me, “Who the fuck are you?” [Laughs] And I’m like, “Who am I? I’m the President of the United States!” [Laughs] But that was Francis, man. He was just this punk kid, you couldn’t tell him anything.

Phil Spector (Studio engineer for the recording of “The Star Spangled Banner”)

This kid Francis Scott Key comes into my studio and says he has a hit song and I’m like, “Sure kid.” Then we start recording and he starts singing “The Star Spangled Banner,” and I just start weeping. That had never happened to me in decades of recording. I said to myself, “This kid Francis is going places.”

Francis Scott Key

So we put the song out and it blows up. The very next day I have people calling me telling me, “Francis, you did it, man. You’re a hit.”

John Stafford Smith

I don’t think Francis was ready. When “The Star Spangled Banner” hit, he just wasn’t ready for the fame. All of a sudden he’s getting fucked up all the time. He’s got all this money, and he’s just partying non-stop. He’s a rock star and no one can tell him anything. So now suddenly he’s partying too hard to write another song.

Mary Tayloe Lloyd (Wife of Francis Scott Key)

By the time he passed, he had pretty much given up on topping “The Star Spangled Banner.” I think he made peace with it in his later years, but for a long time he really thought he was gonna be more than the writer of the national anthem. He really thought he was going to write hit after hit for as long as he lived, bless his heart.

Garth Brooks (American country music recording artist)

Oh absolutely, Francis left a legacy. We’re still studying his early stuff to this day. All us guys—me and all my contemporaries—we’re all still just trying to write “The Star Spangled Banner.” [Laughs]

Herbert Hoover (Thirty-first president of the United States)

I was the one who officially declared it the national anthem. Before that, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was the unofficial national anthem. As soon as I got in there I said, “‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ is shit, we’re replacing it.” It’s a shame Francis wasn’t alive to see his song become the anthem. I think he would have been honored. He probably would have hated all the Great Depression stuff, but I think the anthem thing would have meant a lot to him.

Lucas Gardner is a comedian and writer in New York City. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Offing, and more. His second novel, Contemptible Blue, is out now. Visit for more.

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The Complete Oral History of “The Star Spangled […]