Once again, the loser is … The Star-Spangled Banner.
In this exciting season of presidential debates, baseball playoffs and nonstop football, we are subjected regularly to one rendition after another of our national anthem. It can be painful. It usually is.
Sheryl Crow is a wonderful singer and musician. As the five Democrats running for president put their hands over their hearts at their first debate in Las Vegas, Crow valiantly sang the nation’s hardest-to-sing official song a cappella as she has done at All Star games and in many other venues.
There was as much tension over how clear that tremulous top note would be as there was over Bernie Sanders using the d-word to describe Hillary Clinton’s emails. The burst of applause after the anthem is sung, anywhere, is usually relief it’s over and because it didn’t cause actual wincing and the audience didn’t put their hands over their ears.
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There is a terrible moment of dread in a singer’s heart when asked to sing the unsingable song. And there are regular bouts of all-out controversy. Should we exchange the anthem for America the Beautiful?
Yes. It’s time.
On Sept. 14, 1814, American soldiers at Fort McHenry in Baltimore raised their flag over the harbor during a hard-fought battle with British forces. Seeing the battered flag still flying after a long night of war inspired Francis Scott Key, a slave owner, to write the words to a beer song that became the country’s national anthem in 1931.
The words of the anthem today form questions and are warlike and don’t mean as much as the words of America:
Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming; whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight, o'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming? And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there: Oh, say! does that star-spangled banner yet wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
There are 231 more words, but nobody remembers them enough to sing them. Most of us think the next words are “Play Ball!” as they first occurred in 1862. But it is true that one of our continuing joys is listening to what children think they are hearing when subjected to the anthem.
America the Beautiful, written by Katharine Lee Bates with a melody by Samuel Ward, is far more singable:
“O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain! America! America! God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!”
Again, there are 253 more words, but we rarely bother with them. Again the phrase, “Play Ball!” fits very nicely at the end.
Etiquette may be disappearing, but not while the anthem is sung. Everybody stands. Women do not remove their hats but put their right hands over their hearts. Men remove their hats and put hand on heart unless in the military. Military personnel salute. No removing hand from heart until the anthem is finished. If the flag is visible, you face it. Otherwise you face the singer. Don’t eat, drink, look at your watch or text during the anthem.
There have been many suggestions we need a contest for a new, more updated anthem. It might produce a national burst of much-needed patriotic fervor.
But it’s wishful thinking. Three-fourths of Americans are adamant they do not want the National Anthem changed, even if they can’t remember the words or sing the tune. Hearing it almost always makes tears well up and hearts swell no matter how it is sung or maybe because of how it’s sung.
Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.
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