I’ll Drink to That

How a lusty English tavern song had a profound effect on Bucks and the country.

Lisa Smith of somewhere in Alabama not long ago reached out to me for help. Did I know who composed the song “Old Bucks County” from 1970? I’d never heard of it. Local lead blues guitar hero and neighbor Syd Sholly who knows all the best songs had a good laugh. “The only one I know is ‘Bucks County Blues’ from 1783,” he winked. I thought maybe music disc guru Mitch Barth of Positively Records in the 5 Points section of Levittown would know. If anyone could resolve the mystery, he could. Nope. “Never heard of that one.”

Sadly, I couldn’t help Lisa. But it got me to thinking about historic tunes that helped mold Bucks County and America. Songs like “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” on the hit parade of 1759, followed by John Dickinson’s “The Liberty Song” (1768) and the toe-tapper “My Father and I Went Down to Camp” by Harvard University student Edward Bangs (1776).

Bristol College after its opening as Bucks County’s first college.

While traipsing through the list of Colonial smash hits, I got to a tune written by Francis Scott Key. It’s then I kicked off my clogging shoes and exclaimed, “Whoa, Nelly!” Francis Scott, as you might recall from a previous column, was a lawyer in Baltimore and trustee of the former Bristol College in Croydon. It was Bucks County’s first institution of higher learning built at a cost of $2.3 million in today’s currency. Francis gave the inaugural address in 1833.

Francis Scott Key

Long before that day, however, the attorney was on a British warship at anchor in the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1814. He was there to negotiate the release of prisoner Dr. William Beanes. Francis Scott and Col. John Stuart Skinner, American prisoner exchange agent, were guests aboard HMS Tonnant, an 80-gun British ship of the line captured from the French. After securing Beanes’ release, the group returned to their sloop but were forbidden to sail off. The Americans had learned too much about the size of the royal fleet, its position and plans to attack Baltimore within a few days. After nearly a week of captivity, they watched helplessly as island Fort McHenry guarding the city withstood a withering bombardment by 16 enemy warships throughout a rainy night. Watching star bursts of the shelling above a still standing American flag, an old tune rattled around in Francis Scott’s mind. It was a tavern drinking song of a gentleman’s club in London.

“To Anacreon in Heaven” paid homage to the ancient Greek poet who indulged in a Bacchanalian lifestyle of wine, women and song until he died at 86 from choking on a grape seed in 485 BC. John Stafford Smith composed the tune in 1780 for the Anacreontic Society of London. The group of amateur and professional musicians met every two weeks at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand, the major thoroughfare of Central London. It was a night of fun marked by a concert, dinner and singing off-color pub songs, accented by crooning “To Anacreon in Heaven”. The song became wildly popular, closing with the refrain:

“You’ve the sanction of gods, and the fiat of Jove

While thus we agree, our toast let it be

May our club flourish happy, united , and free!

And long may the sons of Anacreon entwine

The mirth of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.”

Statue of Greek poet Anacreon.

Unfortunately for the society, the Duchess of Devonshire purchased a box below the stage so she could listen in secretly on the antics of the club. Fearful she would censure the group for its lusty ballads, the society folded in 1786. The drinking tune lived on in taprooms throughout the English-speaking world including Baltimore.

Francis Scott, 35, as a poet knew the song. Amid the fort’s bombardment, he composed poetry in rhyme to honor the bravery of defenders on the island. The poetry was distributed later by the commander of the fort, Francis’ brother-in-law. He named the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. Afterward in Baltimore, an actor chose to set the poem as new lyrics to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven”.

British bombardment of Fort McHenry.

Tonight Mary Anne and I will view fireworks over the Hudson River in New York and above the Delaware in Philadelphia to usher in the New Year. We’ll think of Fort McHenry, the indulgent lifestyle of a Greek poet who inspired a drinking song in a British tavern that years later inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to what is his lasting contribution to our nation. A tune officially anointed by Congress on March 3, 1931 as the national anthem of the United States.

“The Star Spangled Banner.”

Sources include “The Story Behind the Star Spangled Banner” by Kate Lineberry published on March 1, 2007 in Smithsonian Magazine, and www.pdmusic.org/1800s on the Web