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Star-spangled good, bad and ugly: Don't butcher our national anthem

Larry French • Feb 25, 2018 at 8:00 AM

It’s been said that singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of the most demanding two minutes in music.

The lyrics — a history lesson in and of itself — are from Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem, “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Key’s patriotic poem was renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner” and set to John Stafford Smith’s tune, “Anacreon in Heaven,” a 1 1/2 octave composition that’s laborious — if not impossible for many singers — to perform.

In 1931, a congressional resolution made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem of the United States, and since then, every imaginable vocal interpretation —good, bad and ugly —has been attempted.

However, due to the numerous attempts at singing our national anthem during major sporting events, the TV remote’s mute button has unfortunately become a parallel necessity.

My latest occasion to hit the mute button: Fergie’s so-called performance at this year’s NBA All-Star Game. While Fergie’s intentions may have been patriotic and sincere (even though she later apologized), it never ceases to amaze me how many singers, performers, or wanna-be-seen-and-heard celebrities have attempted to sing our national anthem in public. For them it’s more about, “Will the audience please rise and direct their attention to the center of the field where California native, singer and recording star so-and-so will lead us in the singing of our national anthem,” rather than a true feeling for the music.

There is a definite air of hypocrisy here.

Unfortunately, for Fergie — and the rest of the country — her version will forever be rooted in the annals of time, thanks to YouTube.

And, yes, after all the ridicule heaped upon Fergie, I went back and listened to her performance.

Gentle readers, there ain’t enough adjectives in the English language to describe it.

Perhaps if more of these so-called attempts at singing were subjected to a two-minute delay in programming they could be edited out “in the name of patriotism.”

Even the missus of the house chimed in by saying, “I’ve not heard anything this bad since Marilyn Monroe sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to John F. Kennedy.”

Through the years, ideas have been generated and attempts made to change our national anthem to “America, the Beautiful,” “God Bless America” and even My Country, ’tis of Thee.”

There are of course, those dyed-in-the wool good old boys living south of the Mason-Dixon Line who still hold fast to the belief that our national anthem should’ve have been “Dixie.”

I guess they failed to realize the Civil War ended 153 years ago and any significance “Dixie” may have had died with that war.

Our national anthem hasn’t been without its controversial performances either.

In 1965, Robert Goulet’s inadvertent lapse in memory during the anthem will forever overshadow his grand performances of “If Ever I Would Leave You,” simply because he substituted “light” for “night” and “night” for “fight.”

Then again, how many Americans actually know the words to our national anthem?

Even some Vietnam veterans still find the late Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 solo guitar version, complete with his “rockets’ red glare,” and “bombs bursting in air,” offensive. Perhaps this is nothing more than their general misunderstanding of Hendrix’s music.

Then there’s the question of tempo that always differs from performance to performance. I prefer a more grandioso tempo, rather than the march-like, let’s-get-it-over-and-done-with tempo. However, if you consider yourself better than the amateur singer (rank amateurs should never attempt to sing the national anthem in public) and know you’re going to have trouble performing the composition at a slower tempo, then by all means, use a more allegro-like tempo, lest you and the listeners be subjected to further pain.

Of course, the biggest problem of all is singing our national anthem a cappella. Many have tried, and few have succeeded. By beginning too high, disaster awaits the performer at the end. The octave-and-a-half range is not for the novice singer and sometimes not even for the trained singer. So, unless you’re a bona-fide diva or can sing like Placido Domingo, forget the a cappella attempt and request some accompaniment.

There remains though the mystery of why so many singers have this burning desire to add yet another octave when the word “free” is sung. This octave attempt usually ends in disaster and provokes me to write comments that can’t be printed here.

Our national anthem must always be sung with dignity and a feeling of patriotic pride. It should never be used for two-minutes of personal recognition. If you can’t sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” suitably, then by all means, please don’t.

“Tis better to have declined the offer, than to make a damn fool of one’s self in public.”

Larry French lives in Butler. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, National Society of Newspaper Columnists and teaches composition and literature at East Tennessee State University. You may reach him at FRENCHL@ETSU.EDU

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