National anthems: we've all sung them in school or at sporting events ... but what do you really know about them? Did you know that The Star-Spangled Banner got its tune from a drinking song? Or that the Dutch national anthem, "Het Wilhelmus" was once co-opted by the Nazi? Read on:
Great Britain: This One's for Hymn!
In most languages other than English, the word for what we call a "national anthem" translates roughly to "national hymn." And, to be fair, that's probably an accurate portrayal of these songs, which pay solemn homage to one's country and leaders in a style that isn't too far removed from religious praise. Unlike the content of your local hymnal, however, most national anthems weren't intentionally written for the role they now fill. Rather than poet laureates, their authors tend to be random patriots and they usually earn their vaunted place in society not by decree, but by popular acceptance. By the time politicians get around to legally making the anthem national it's already been loved by the public for decades ... if not longer.
Prime example: "God Save the King," the national anthem of choice for the people of Great Britain. Nobody has any idea who wrote this puppy, but it must have been composed at some point prior to the 16th century when the words - in Latin - first appear in print. But, while the general theme ("Hey we sure do like the king and we hope that things go well for him") has remained intact, the specific lyrics have fluctuated considerably over the years and no official version has ever been canonized.
The lyrics appear to have been compiled from a number of different sources, including the Bible, where the quote "God save the King" appears no fewer than three times. The entire second verse, meanwhile, was probably cribbed from a Church of England prayer associated with the commemoration of the foiled 1605 Gunpowder Plot to kill the King and members of Parliament. (And, speaking of plagiarism, it's worth noting that Norway's national anthem is, essentially, "God Save the King" translated into Norwegian.)
By the late 1500s, the song had become so popular that its key lyrics were incorporated into a series of passwords for the British Navy. To identify fellow navy men you hadn't previously met all you needed to do was walk up and say, "God save the King." If that peculiar fellow also had his sea legs, he'd reply, "Long to reign over us."
The Netherlands: It Could be Verse
Another common feature of national anthems: they usually have far more verses than you're used to singing. Take the Netherlands' anthem, "Het Wilhelmus." When attending to matters of state (and sporting events) the Dutch commonly sing this as a two-verse medley. However, what they're actually belting out are the first and sixth verses of a 15-verse extravaganza written in honor of the Dutch Prince William of Orange in 1568.
Oh, and did we mention that it's all written in first-person? To sing the song, Dutch people everywhere must briefly adopt the persona of William of Orange, as he vows to remain true to his country, to God, and to the fight against tyranny, and (oddly for a Dutch national anthem) to the King of Spain.
Weirder still, it turns out that the tune of "Het Wilhelmus" has led a seedy life. During the 1930s and '40s, the music (set to vastly different lyrics) was co-opted as the "Treuelied," the Nazi SS song of loyalty.
The United States: Dive Bars and Stripes Forever
On the night of September 13, 1814, at the height of the War of 1812, lawyer (and sometime poet) Francis Scott Key was sent by the U.S. government as an emissary to pick up a minor POW named Dr. William Beanes from where he was being held on a British military ship near Baltimore. Beanes had been arrested for "harassing British soldiers" after they'd conquered Washington, D.C., a few weeks previously. (We like to imagine this involved a lot of rude gestures and early attempts at "ye mother" jokes.)
At any rate, the British agreed to release Beanes, but told Key that he and the doctor would have to wait until the morning to leave. As it turned out, Key had shown up right as the British were preparing to attack Baltimore and its Fort McHenry.
Key ended up with a prime view of the ensuing firefight, watching it from the deck of one of the ships doing the attacking. When, at dawn, he saw the American flag still flying over the Fort, Key was so relieved that he immediately scribbled down the first couple verses on an envelope. But don't blame him if you can't hit the high notes. Key had nothing to do with the tune. At some point after his poem was published, some unknown person attached it to the music of an older song: The theme of the Anacreontic Society.
So, what was the Anacreontic Society? Believe it or not, it was a gentleman's club (read: excuse for rich guys to get together and drink) that was popular in England during the 18th century. Dedicated to the booze and babes-filled poetry of the Greek writer Anacreon, they composed a stirring, epic, and perhaps intentionally difficult-to-sing anthem for him in 1870. Not surprisingly, the song was written to be sung at "meetings" with each verse ending with the lyrics, "and besides I'll instruct you like me, to intwine/ The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus' Vine."
Japan: Serious Mourning Glory
One of the oldest national anthems in the world, the "Kimigayo" was officially canonized back in 1888 (in contrast, "The Star Spangled Banner" didn't become our anthem until the 1930s). However, the components of the song are even older still.
An imperial court musician put together the tune in 1880, opting for a mournful, dirge-like melody that set the "Kimigayo" apart from its march, waltz, and drinking-song-influenced counterparts.
The lyrics, meanwhile, are several hundred years old, dating to the 10th century when they were first written down in a poetry anthology. They're written as a "tanka," a stylized haiku-like poem composed of five lines and 31 syllables. As such, they're also extremely beautiful. To wit: "May the reign of the Emperor continue for a thousand, nay, eight thousand generations and for the eternity that it takes for small pebbles to grow into a great rock and become covered with moss." Wow. Now that's what we call lyricism!
From Big Hair to the Big Bang, here's a Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything by our friends at mental_floss.
Did you know that paper clips started out as Nazi-fighting warriors? Or that cruise control was invented by a blind genius? Read it all in the book!