How Elsie Reilley saved the Anthem | The Star-Spangled Banner
The most famous three-part name linked to “The Star-Spangled Banner” is, of course, Francis Scott Key. In this bicentennial year of the composition of his ode to the American flag, it’s good to recall another name: Elsie Jorss Reilley, whose musical talent helped the poem become the National Anthem.
From 1814 until 1931, when Congress passed and President Herbert Hoover signed the necessary bill, the U.S. had no national song. Credit for the 1931 act goes to many people, including five million Americans who signed petitions backing Key’s composition. But Reilley was a major key to Key’s success.
Born in 1900 in Washington, D.C., to immigrant parents from Germany, she displayed in grade school recitals her excellence in singing. She had many other opportunities to show off her soprano voice. Active in charitable efforts, such as raising money to send mothers and babies to a get-away summer camp when she was a teen, Elsie entertained troops during World War I and sang during Memorial Day services at Arlington National Cemetery, “receiving many encores,” according to a newspaper.
In high school, Elsie appeared in an opera, sang at Rotary Club meetings, and performed during summer services at an Episcopal church and at a Christmas pageant in a Methodist church.
As an adult, she married the deputy commander of the D.C. post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which put her in the right place at the right time to take part in anointing Key’s song as the National Anthem. Previous attempts to secure that designation had failed, in part because of objections that the tune was too difficult to perform.
To refute that, in January 1930, two congressman invited Mrs. Reilley to accompany them to a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering a new anthem bill. She was, according to the Associated Press, “an attractive soprano” who was “exhibit ‘A’ to prove…that the ‘rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air’ no longer soar too high for the average voice.”
By then a regular performer on the radio, she joined the Navy Band in presenting a rendition that transposed Key’s song to a lower key. “I was a bit frightened,” she admitted later. “So much was at stake. I knew if I quavered on those high notes all would be lost.”
But she didn’t, and the National Anthem was officially adopted a year later, thanks, in part, to the talented Elsie Jorss Reilley.