Despite the more pressing matters of Puerto Rico, gun reform, and an impending nuclear holocaust, President Trump has recently been devoting a lot of energy — and Twitter characters — to NFL players refusing to stand during the national anthem. “Stand for Anthem or sit for game!”, he writes. “RESPECT OUR COUNTRY.” He even had Vice President Mike Pence stage a walkout at the Lucas Oil Stadium last week when players took a knee (achieving little more than making Pence look like a pawn).
While the Star-Spangled Banner represents liberty, freedom and the great American dream for Trump and millions more — a belief indoctrinated in American kids throughout their school years — its origins, as the song of the Anacreontic Society (an eighteenth-century gentlemen’s club), are somewhat at odds with these values.
The Anacreontic Society — its name a homage to the Greek lyric poet famed for his odes to bacchanalian pleasures of wine, sex, and love — was typical of many other eighteenth-century gentlemen’s clubs. Founded in London in 1766, it was dedicated to promoting music and conviviality, and can be credited, at least in part, to a change of musical taste in London, presenting many prominent European musicians, including Joseph Haydn in 1791. An evening’s entertainment would include a concert, followed by dinner, songs and “everything that mirth can suggest”, as one gentleman wrote to ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle’ in 1780. If Trump had been an eighteenth-century rake, he’d have been sure to join the year-long waiting list for membership. At the end of each meeting, the members, standing hand in hand, would sing the Anacreontic Song. Its pseudo-classical lyrics, laden with double-entendre, are typical of the period: “And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine / The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine” go the final lines.
But of more interest here is the tune to which they were sung. Composed by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, it was picked up as the melody for the Star-Spangled Banner, which was recognised by congress in 1931 as the American national anthem.
A generic English ditty makes its way across the pond – so what? But this was THE Anacreontic Song, sung at every meeting of the society. The sexually-charged lyrics testify to a misogynistic attitude within the very DNA of the Anacreontic Society. Take another stanza, this one from ‘Mary’s Dream’:
I hotly drove inwards, she straightway awoke,
And clung round me close, as she heav’d to each stroke;
Tho’ at first in soft murmurs she seem’d to complain,
‘Till the trickling sweet extacy drown’d all her pain:
The balsamic oil had the virtue to blunt,
And heal, in an instant, the wounds her C- -t.
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Sung by a Mr Goldfinch at the Anacreontic Society to “Universal Applause” (as recorded in a songbook published at the time), the lyrics here make the Anacreontic Song look like a nursery rhyme. Such explicit language and crude metaphors were commonplace in the 18th-century clubhouse (not to mention Billy Bush’s 2005 tour bus), demonstrating the idea of men having authority over women, whilst delivering them the pleasure they apparently so craved.
But this was all in good humour; it was locker-room talk, right? These were barristers, doctors, lawyers – gentlemen of stature who indulged in ribaldry within the four walls of the club house. But when the Duchess of Devonshire requested admission to the Anacreontic Society, the very essence of this boys’ club was threatened. The Duchess’s wish was granted, but not without condition: she, and other ladies who attended, were seated behind a grille, like ‘a seraglio of Turkish beauties’ as one male journalist put it, so that they could observe without being seen by the men.
But out of sight was not out of mind. William Parke, a member, recounted: “some of the comic songs not being exactly calculated for the entertainment of ladies, the singers were restrained; which displeasing many of the members, they resigned one after another; and a general meeting being called, the society was dissolved” in 1792. Such was the displeasure of the men being denied their unreserved ribaldry, the club became extinct.
This was the environment in which the iconic tune for the Star-Spangled Banner was born, a tune which summons proud Americans to their feet. It was not one of freedom and liberty, but one of misogyny and segregation. This tune represented exclusivity, masculinity, and discrimination. It is little wonder that today, despite different words, this tune represents the same to Colin Kaepernick.