198 years ago today, the United States declared war on the British. The War of 1812 is one of the lesser remembered wars, probably because at war’s end, things largely reverted back to status quo ante bellum. However, it is responsible for a few wonderful songs, some of which are still being performed today.
5. “The Star Spangled Banner” – Garth Brooks
Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Defence (sic) of Fort McHenry,” penned after the British naval attack on the fort, was set to already existing music and became the USA’s national anthem. Though it’s the most significant song in this week’s Friday Five, it’s slotted in this space because, well, performers only ever sing the first verse, which is kind of disappointing (there are three more). Brooks’ version, sung at Super Bowl XXVII, made a little history itself when he stomped out shortly before the game because NBC refused to air his video for “We Shall Be Free” during the broadcast. Luckily cooler heads prevailed, Brooks sang, and a clip from the video was aired. Now all of the Super Bowl’s anthem singers are required to have a backup recording.
“The Hunters of Kentucky,” a poem written by Samuel Woodworth, was first set to music in the early 1820s. It’s about then-Colonel Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans. Of course, how could he lose when each Kentucky infantryman (who made up about a quarter of Jackson’s troops in New Orleans) is “half a horse, half an alligator?” Though the song may be more myth than fact, “Hunters” would become Jackson’s campaign song in 1824 and ’28. Folksinger House recorded this, and several other songs—both American and British—from the War of 1812 for Smithsonian Folkways.
3. “Lakes of Pontchartrain” – The Be Good Tanyas
This one’s an Irish folk tune about a man who falls in love with a “Creole girl,” only to learn that she’s waiting for her sailor to return. While an exact date or location cannot be placed on this song’s origin, it’s hypothesized that British soldiers carried it back overseas with them following the War of 1812. Hearing the Tanyas mournful harmonies, it’s near impossible not to feel for the poor guy and the “bonny ol’ girl” he left behind. Well, maybe not so much for her: she has that sailor.
Here’s a 19th century fiddle tune written about the Battle of New Orleans; Vincent and her crew grassed it up on this cut from Destination Life. Now, the battle had little importance as the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed, but since it was responsible for two excellent songs on today’s list, we’ll just let that little bit of information slide.
Jimmy Driftwood (who also wrote “Tennessee Stud”) took the instrumental “Eighth of January” and added lyrics to it. It’s a great song, yes, but as far as historically accurate—I’m no history scholar, but chances are that the U.S. troops didn’t use an alligator as a makeshift cannon barrel when their real one melted.
Horton’s 1959 version was a smash, spending ten weeks at Number One, and British singer Lonnie Donegan had a hit with it across the pond as well.
Juli Thanki is the editor of Engine 145 and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bluegrass Unlimited, and M Music & Musicians Magazine. In 2011 she received the International Bluegrass Music Association Print Media Person of the Year award.