O Say Can You Speed It Up? An Anthem is not an Audition

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I’m not into Francis Scott Key. I mean I like that one hit he had, but the rest of his stuff—not for me.

Plus I associate his name with a bad memory. In the 1990s I had a White House internship in the Clinton administration. After a night of drinking, my roommates and I were walking towards Arlington from Georgetown when we got our asses handed to us on the Francis Scott Key bridge by a handful of equally drunk US Marines. They tried to throw one of my roommates into the Potomac. This mammoth Jarhead socked another one of my roommates before turning to me. “You want some of this?”

It’s true he really did ask me that.

“No,” I said. POW. A knuckle bomb at my lower left temple. I was 23 and I had never before been punched outside of a hockey game. My first thought was something my mother might think: Why would anyone want to do that to me?

The only time I ever think of Key or of the Key Bridge debacle is while at AHL games, when we fans have to endure another self-indulgent church vocalist belting out Key’s Star-Spangled Banner like the man had written it  just for them.

I’m no rabid patriot. I don’t love my country right or wrong. But I am a proud American. And I’ve lost all patience with these vainglorious solo acts.

You know the ones. Their versions linger on for almost two minutes. They slow tempos to highlight big moments. They add unnecessary notes to showcase their Mariah Carey-ness. Think Demi Lovato at the most recent World Series, then make her voice especially pitchy. The last refuge of a poor anthem singer can be heard on the word “free” in the last line. If they sing an interval called a perfect fourth- jump from G up to C in the sheet music below- you know they’re bad.

The worst of the worst regard their performance as a big break, patriotism meets The X Factor. Or simply as a chance to show off, be seen and heard, earn props for the angelic pipes they’re so convinced they possess. Teams in the NHL aren’t helping. For example, the Boston Bruins’ application to sing the anthem explicitly seeks “talented musicians looking to showcase your abilities.

Despite this appeal to vanity, the National Anthem is never about the performer, even when it’s interpreted spectacularly–as it was by Marvin Gaye at the NBA All-Star Game and by Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl.

Now, basking in the fleeting fame of being an anthem singer doesn’t make one’s performance  ‘wrong’.  US military bands are required to conform to an arrangement standardized during the First World War known as the Service Version, but everyone else can do whatever they like with the Anthem when performing it. It is after all an artistic work that requires a performance for interpretation, unlike say a painting.

While 99.9% of these nightly travesties aren’t ‘wrong’, neither are they especially good. Yet much as it is in darts, morals and manners, it’s easy to miss the target and, if not be outright wrong, then at least not be quite ‘right’.

A MANGLED HISTORY

Let’s drop any pretense that the Star-Spangled Banner is either an untouchable national treasure or by any measure bound by the kinds of origins we Americans should be quick to salute.

MELODY

As is well known, the music and vocal melody are unoriginal—borrowed, ripped off or plagiarized, whichever term you prefer—by the lawyer-poet (and prominent slaveholder) Francis Scott Key from a British gentleman’s music club tune composed in 1775 called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Some like to call it a ‘drinking song’, which is simplifying things a bit.

[Listen to the original British tune here.]

[Listen to how the anthem sounded in the 1800's here.]

In using the melody for what became the Star-Spangled Banner, Key was double-dipping—he used the same music in 1805 for another poem he’d written called “When the Warrior Returns from the Battle Afar.” That one honored US military members returning from the rather obscure First Barbary War of 1801, when the US scuffled with parts of the Ottoman Empire. Note these lines from that poem:

And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscured 
By the light of the Star Spangled flag of our nation. 
Where each radiant star gleamed a meteor of war, 
And the turbaned heads bowed to its terrible glare,

If you start singing them at “Whose broad stripes…” you’ll note that they do indeed match. You’ll also note the unsubtle racism and the attack on Islam. Curiously, when he wrote this poem Key was an avowed pacifist- that would change some years later.

LYRICS

Oh, you say, but the majestic lyrics of the Anthem, they were inspired by the extraordinary American defense of Fort McHenry in that most of glorious of conflicts, The War for American Independence, The Civil War, … The War of 1812. Right. That one. What was that one all about again?

I know, I had to look it up too.

In the War of 1812, the US was the aggressor. Ostensibly the government was miffed over Great Britain’s perceived interference with America’s attempts to conduct international trade, so Congress declared war on the Empire. In reality the US sought to expand. The fact that at the time, England was busy fighting arguably the greatest military mind in history—Napoleon—surely had plenty to do with the timing of the declaration. The US could not imagine that in two years’ time England would dispatch with Bonaparte and turn its might eastward … but that’s what happened.

Before that though, US forces tried to take some of Canada and failed. Three times! Even losing Michigan in the process. Canada wasn’t even a country yet and they still repelled the invasion (perhaps these victories explain why the Canadian government has spent over $50 million on activities and remembrances for the war’s bicentennial this year).

The Original Star-Spangled Banner (Courtesy of the Smithsonian)

In 1814 British forces chased President Madison and the sorry local militia (which included recent enlistee and former pacifist Francis Scott Key) from Washington DC. Strategically the city was a dud, so they burned it. But they also burned it because the Americans had burned Fort York–the city that would become Toronto. Tit for tat.

In turning their attention towards Fort McHenry and the city of Baltimore, the British set the stage for Key to become a legend.

As the story goes, Key was on a British ship eight miles away, having negotiated the freedom of a prisoner of war, but was held on the ship for the duration of the siege of Fort McHenry so he wouldn’t leak any intelligence to his fellow Americans. Despite a screaming, blasting 25-hour siege, the Fort stood strong and in the aftermath, Key was inspired by having seen the huge American flag (all 1,260 square feet of it) hoisted over the Fort.

LOSERS

Historians concur that the War of 1812 ended without a clear winner. So what we have is a nice (if astonishingly violent in later stanzas) poem written by a slaveholder set to twice-stolen music inspired by a fierce battle fought in a dubious, ideological war that ended inconclusively.

But if identifying a winner is hard, finding a loser is easy: the native Indians. After all, the War of 1812 made a national hero out of Andrew Jackson–the worst thing to happen to the Indians since smallpox.

Jackson came to national prominence after winning the Battle of Horseshoe Bend—believed to be the bloodiest day in the history of the post-colonial Indian. He later land-grabbed much of Florida, and when he was the President he blew off a Supreme Court ruling (Worcester vs. Georgia) that recognized the Cherokee as a sovereign nation and put into motion the eventual, forced relocation of tens of thousands of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Seminole out of the deep south and to lands west of the Mississippi.

The ensuing relocation, known today as the “Trail of Tears”, portended the likes of the 1943 Bataan death march, except in Bataan, US and Filipino POWs marched 65 miles under the extraordinary cruelty of members of the Japanese army. The Indian nations  of 1838 meanwhile marched over 1,000 miles under the comparable cruelty of members of the US army.

In short, the War of 1812 was an ill-advised land grab. It killed nearly as many as the War for Independence, was a harbinger of sorrow for the Native Americans, and achieved next to nothing. While it did inspire the National Anthem, it also gave rise to the lamest battle cry of all time: “Remember the Raison!”

VARIATIONS ON A THEME

The National Anthem, as much as it is designed to bring us together, divides us too. Many people want the straight up, no frills version, and I’m one of those people. I’m only one of those people however because the overwhelming majority of singers lack the creativity to do something unique and memorable and important with the tune.

I much prefer a choir—and I don’t care if they’re polished or they’re fifth graders who can’t be trusted to harmonize—because a choir best represents the motto E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one. That said, my favorite versions of the anthem are not straight up, no frills. My favorites are the ones that express an unmistakable identity and point of view, like that of Motown legend (and honorably discharged member of the US Air Force) Marvin Gaye. His powerful 1983 rendition didn’t spring from nowhere. It was a work-in-progress, the culmination of several previous performances at other times and other venues that show flashes of the soul-stirring masterpiece he brought to the Forum in Inglewood almost three decades ago.

Meanwhile, Whitney’s sensational Super Bowl rendition lacks Marvin’s soulfulness but has everything else: she is fresh-faced and happy, she has the most amazing female voice of her generation, the timing of her rendition — during the Gulf War– is beyond serendipitous, and her arrangement– with its sublime highs and lows– invigorates the tune like few others and really preps us for her explosive and glorious coda.

The daring decision to put your own stamp on the National Anthem dates at least as far back as Jose Feliciano’s performance during the 1968 World Series.

According to the musician, this performance got him blacklisted by the music industry for many years.

Jimi Hendrix blew the doors off the anthem a year later at Woodstock. And the performers aren’t the only ones with variations.

  • Chicago Blackhawks fans begin cheering before tenor Jim Cornelison strikes a note.
  • Washington Capitals fans shout out “Red”.
  • Baltimore Orioles fans shout “O”.
  • Dallas Stars (and Texas) fans shout at both “Stars”.
  • Montreal Canadians fans boo (OK, once).

I know fans who regard all of the above behavior as somehow disrespectful, and I defend their right to express that opinion. But nothing in United States code 36 USC sec.301 tells us we must be quiet during the performance of the National Anthem. It says civilians should put their hands over their hearts and face the flag.

The rest is up to us.

THE PRIVILEGE OF PATRIOTISM

Some night, I would love to hear someone at the Cedar Park Center belt out the official Spanish-language version of the National Anthem (yes, Arizona, I said ‘official’). Commissioned by the US government in 1945, it was translated into (singable) Spanish by a Peruvian immigrant named Clotilde Arias, who also wrote jingles for Alka-Seltzer, Ford, and Campbell Soup, to name a few.

[Hear the Spanish version done by choir via this NPR article.]

I think performing such a version would take brass balls, especially here in Texas. It would ignite fierce debate. I think the singer would be booed, and maybe not be able to finish the song. On a Tuesday night, when the crowd tends to be a bit on the rough side, the singer may need a police escort out.

But the freedom to take risks helps drive American ingenuity. And people have died defending such freedoms, an indirect one of which is that we enjoy the privilege of showing our patriotism in a way that is unique to each of us.

If one chooses to make that showing at AHL Game #398 with a self-loving version of Key’s anthem while 5,000 people are waiting for the puck to drop, it is the wrong choice. A hockey game is not an audition for American Idol, and I don’t need any extra time to recollect the night a Marine asked me a question but didn’t bother to wait for the answer.

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