Before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, pop-star Jose Feliciano became the first singer to “stylize” our National Anthem. The reaction was immediate (beginning even before he had finished) and almost universally negative. As I recall, some of the players (Ray Oyler comes to mind) were among the critics.
Nonetheless, Feliciano proved to be a pioneer. These days, it seems, our Anthem is rarely sung without the trilling of every third note and doubling of the total syllable count. The singing of The Star Spangled Banner has become a performance (but rarely a good one) rather than a tribute to the country. To understand what such a tribute would sound like, one must think back to the rousing renditions of “God Bless America” that were belted out at sporting events following 9/11. Or, for some of us, to the version of the Star Spangled Banner by Robert Merrill that they used to play at Yankee Stadium.
I hadn’t reflected for years about the de-anthemization of our Anthem until last week when I watched the broadcast of the match between our national soccer team and England’s at Wembley Stadium. Before every international soccer match, the anthems of the competing countries are played or performed. The players line up in the center of field and, in most cases, sing along loudly. Whether the singing helps jack them up or merely serves as a release of nervous energy is unclear. But there’s no doubt that it pumps up the crowd and contributes to the unique atmosphere of these events.
Since the U.S. was the visiting team, our Anthem was performed first, in the now-usual fashion. Given all of the self-indulgent, individualized riffs, the players couldn’t possibly sing along. Instead, they shuffled aimlessly waiting for the performance to end. Then came the English song – God Save The Queen. Here is a song that even Jose Feliciano (who first made his name deconstructing an anthem of a different sort, Light My Fire) would be hard-pressed to stylize. To my knowledge it is always sung the same way – stirring. In this instance, it certainly was. As English captain John Terry and the rest of the cast belted out the number, I felt slightly embarrassed.
It then dawned on me that every other country whose anthem I could think of seems to have a tamper-proof one. Not just France (La Marseillaise) and Germany (Das Deutschlandlied, aka Deutschland ueber Alles), but also those South American countries like Brazil with their straightforward, somewhat militaristic-sounding tunes.
On the other hand, it may not be appropriate to apply a global test. As Americans, we take pride in our individualism. Perhaps, then, it is fitting that our performers attempt, however lamely, to put their own stamp on the National Anthem. Who cares if we look like fools at international soccer matches? To paraphrase the old World War II slogan, we’re defending motherhood, apple pie, and the right to butcher our Anthem.
JOHN adds: The Star Spangled Banner is hard to sing; that’s no doubt part of the problem. But everyone who ever attends sports events is familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of waiting for a stylized and prolonged version of the Anthem to end–finally. You can’t possibly sing along, nor would you want to.
Notwithstanding the difficulty of the song, it doesn’t have to be that way. Coincidentally, my youngest daughter sang the National Anthem Friday night at the Twins game, when the locals opened their series against the New York Yankees. She was part of an elementary school choir of about 75 kids. Here they are, on the field during the performance:
They sang the Anthem straight and pretty fast, and got an excellent response from the crowd. I question whether individualism really requires that we butcher the Anthem. It’s best performed by a brass band, and if sung it should be sung briskly and without embellishment. Friday night, the only member of the crowd of 35,000 or so to be disappointed was my wife, who had hoped that our daughter might take the opportunity to get Derek Jeter’s autograph while she was on the field.
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