Monday, February 7, 2011

Our National Anthem

Thanks to the reaction over this past weekend concerning the rendition of our national anthem at the annual Super Bowl, The Star Spangled Banner is getting a lot of press.  I have my own reaction to the latest rendition which I will shortly describe.

To set a little bit of an historical stage, however, we should look at how we arrived at having this piece of music become our national anthem - our national hymn.  The lyrics came from the pen of Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 when the country's banner continued to fly amid the shelling.  It was later set to music but it may not readily be known that the music was originally called To Anacreon in Heaven which was a drinking song in men's social clubs in England frequented by the Anacreonic Society.  While the music was originally a drinking song, because of its prominence in becoming the nation's anthem the music rose to new heights.  It is a stirring piece of music but one not without its difficulties.

Because of its vast melodic range it has often been cited as difficult to sing.  To a voice not used to such stretches of melody it can become a hurdle; I witnessed this once at a baseball game when a local person was asked to sing the anthem (without any accompaniment).  Before it ended the singer had traversed at least three different keys.  For most good singers, however, it is not an insurmountable task if sung in a pitch of a comfortable range.

One final historical note (which I only recently became aware of) - this musical piece did not officially become our national anthem until 1931 during the presidency of Herbert Hoover.  Yet is has become enshrined as the national hymn and therefore deserves respect.  It is a stirring moment when one hears a marching band begin the piece; it raises pride in our hearts when, for example, we hear it played at the Olympic Games as gold medal winning Americans receive their medals.

This brings me to my concerns about how I believe the anthem is becoming abused.  One can criticize the performer this past weekend for fumbling the lyrics (any person - professional or not - can have this happen under pressure) but she is not the first to have this happen.  No, my concern is not with someone messing up the lyrics - it is with the addition of all kinds of extra notes and slides and glides to the point that one almost doesn't recognize the original melody.  Is the singing of our national anthem by "superstars" more about how they look and sound or is it about honoring America?  Let's get back to singing the anthem the way it was written!

I must insert a plug here for a local music group with which I have had the privilege of being connected.  They have rendered the anthem at a number of sporting events in places such as the Saratoga Race Track and a major league baseball stadium.  They are called One Man Short (sometime I'll tell you how they got their name) and are a men's singing group that presents a wonderful rendition of the national anthem.  In fact after they completed the anthem at the major league stadium one of the women in the crowd said to them as they left the field that "you sang it the way it should be sung."  Why can't groups like this be invited to a Super Bowl?  They'd do a much better job of honoring America than some of what passes as musical renditions of the national hymn.

Francis Scott Key wrote four verses that became part of the anthem - the other three are mostly forgotten.  Let me close by quoting the final verse because it says much about what we are about in this country:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

May it ever be so; God bless the United States of America!


  1. I agree with you on this topic, Neil.
    The original composition is perfect as is ~
    I'm very sensitive when it comes to changing a work of art.
    ...especially when people change the lyrics to a song without the author's permission. To me, it's like changing the words to a poem.

  2. Amen!! We already know you can hit all those other notes...that's why you're up there in the first place. Why not try hitting the notes in the actual song for a change? I vote for One Man Short National Anthem renditions from now on!