Rumor has it that the melody of “The Star Spangled Banner” was taken from an old colonial drinking song. If so, what were the original, pre-Francis Scott Key words? Can you print them uncut and complete so I can get a singalong going in the clubs?
—Reena Pearl, West Hollywood, California

Rumor, nothing–the national anthem’s origins as a drinking song are more solidly attested than the ancestry of most people. (Not that I’m casting aspersions, you understand.) The original tune was “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular English drinking song written around 1770. Originally it was the theme song of the Anacreontic Society, an organization of upscale London boozers. (Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet known for his songs of wine and women.)

You probably have the idea that “To Anacreon in Heaven” is some raucous foot-stomper, and by comparison to the national anthem I suppose it is. However, a generation raised on “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” may find it pretty heavy going. Here’s the first verse:

To Anacreon, in heav’n, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of harmony sent a petition
That he their inspirer and patron would be;

When this answer arriv’d from the jolly old Grecian–
Voice, fiddle, and flute,
No longer be mute;
I’ll lend ye my name, and inspire yet to boot:
And, besides, I’ll instruct ye, like me, to intwine
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.

There are five more verses in the same vein. Passable for a bunch of 18th-century frat rats, I suppose, but not in the same league as, “Oh Anna, my Delta Gamma, she’s got legs like a baby grand pianuh.”


The first widespread “yellow ribbon fever” was not in 1981 [March 1] but rather 1973, when the POWs were released from Vietnam. I distinctly remember newsreels of wives, daughters, and sweethearts wearing or displaying this emblem when greeting their loved ones. In fact, I believe the song’s massive popularity at the time was due to popular belief that the “prison” mentioned in the lyrics was the Hanoi Hilton.

The “white kerchief” you mention as a precursor of the yellow ribbon is alluded to in medieval and Renaissance literature as a token of affection from a fair lady to her noble knight as he goes into battle. In fact, one of the pieces of “evidence” in the trial of Anne Boleyn was a handkerchief she allegedly gave to one of Henry VIII’s soldiers. (Henry, enraged at this “proof” of adultery, had her executed.)
—N.G., Chicago

Displaying yellow ribbons may have occurred here and there in 1973, but it wasn’t the national phenomenon it became in 1979-1981. I found no references to ribbons in contemporary press accounts of the POW release. In part this may have been because most of the POWs were home before the song became a hit. The first POWs were released February 12, most were home by the middle of March, and the last were out April 1. Dawn’s version of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” debuted on the Cash Box singles chart on February 2 at number 88 and didn’t reach number 1 until May. It’s possible the POW release played some part in making it the smash it was.

In other yellow ribbon news, a source who knows Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown, coauthors of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” says they (or at least Levine) privately admit they got the concept of yellow ribbons from the title song in the 1949 John Wayne movie “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” (Publicly the two maintain they pulled the idea out of thin air.) The 1949 tune was a rewrite of a similarly titled song copyrighted in 1917, which in turn was based on another song dating back to 1838. Cecil has been trying to reach Levine himself for further insight, so far without result. If I hear anything, however, you’ll be the first to know.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.