14 September 2015

The Star Spangled Banner-- Sing It America!

Gen. Jerry Boykin on the National Anthem

Last year was the bicentennary of the penning of Francis Scott Key's of the Star Spangled Banner. Our National Anthem is based on a poem "The Defense of Fort McHenry" about the bombardment of Baltimore by the British during the War of 1812.  The British had just burned Washington, DC  and their forces were heading North to beat "rebel" American forces in Baltimore.  What stood in the way of British military dominance was Fort McHenry, which blocked warships from entering Baltimore harbor.

The British bombarded Fort McHenry for 27 hours.  Key was aboard a Royal Navy warship negotiating the release of a prison.  During the aerial siege, the American lawyer was taunted that soon the Stars and Stripes would be replaced by the Union Jack.  On the dawn of September 14, 1812 when Francis Scott Key saw the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry, he was inspired to write: 'Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?".

Shelli Jones Manuel 
Shelli Manuel, an accomplished musician and vocalist, was inspired to educate people about the Star Spangled Banner when she interviewed Baltimoreans about the National Anthem in the city of the song's birth, yet 80% of the adults and none of the youths knew any of the verse.  No wonder people chuckle nervously at scene in The Naked Gun (1988) when Detective Frank Drebin stumbled along when singing the Star Spangled Banner at a ballgame.

There have also been movements to replace the Star Spangled Banner as the National Anthem with the Woody Guthrie folk song "This Land Is Your Land" (1940).  Guthrie's ditty was written in reaction to his repulsion to hearing Kate Smith sing  Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" (1918) on the radio, as he thought that the lyrics were unrealistic and complacent. Guthrie tinkered with the tune to occasionally include overtly political verses which showed communist sympathies. It may be a fun song to sing around a campfire but does it really depict universal American values?

Pit Bull singing Nuestro Himno (2006)
In 2006, there was a push by a bunch of Latino pop stars like Pit Bull and  to make "Nuestro Himno" a de-facto hip-hop Hispanic National Anthem. Clearly, a Spanish version of a National Anthem takes away from the unity of one song brings a nation. This was foisted on the public in the midst of the 2006 push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  What a way to Balkanize the country! 

But there is also the trickiness of translation.  The first stanza of "Nuestro Himno" was fairly accurately rendered, although references to bombs and rockets were referred to as "fierce combat" so as not to sound too militaristic.  However, the second stanza seems to totally rewrite Key's lyrics, expressing "we are equal, we are brothers."  An alternate version of "Nuestro Himno" including rapping in English exhorting: "Let's not start a war With all these hard workers They can't help where they were born."  Did they channel Woody Guthrie with some Latino flair? Fortunately, Nuestro Himno got mixed reviews and seems to have faded into the sunset. 

Miley Cyrus at 2015 VMA
In 2014, Miley Cyrus backed a "We the People" petition to President Obama to change the National Anthem from the Star Spangled Banner to "Party in the USA". Of course that publicity stunt should have been taken as seriously as Miley Cyrus would be by a Music Conservatory.  Still, the petition only fell 90,000 votes short of being addressed by the White House. Shelli Manuel and the Veterans of Foreign War also muted this mutiny of our National Anthem.

Why is it that there are multiple moves to replace the Star Spangled Banner as America's National Anthem?  Obviously, education is a key component for the anthematic cognitive dissonance. Our educational system seems to stress social history in lieu of patriotic concentrations.  Moreover, students are conditioned to consider the United States a warmonger, misinterpreting the "bombs and rockets" as aggression rather than standing in self-defense.

Another aspect which people wonder "What the Hail?" about our National Anthem is the tune.  Key was a lawyer and poet, not a composer. Hence he borrowed the already established tune "The Anacreontic Song" (To Anacreon in Heaven). Unfortunately, that was a popular English tavern tune which was used as a sobriety test-- members could be refused another round if sang off key or flubbed the lyrics.   Key ought not be chagrined at borrowing popular melodies, as that is what Guthrie did for "This Land Is Your Land" too.

There has been some consternation about stylized instrumental arrangements of the Star Spangled Banner, like Jimi Hendrix guitar solo rendition at Woodstock (1969) or Jose Feliciano's soulful arrangement at Tiger Stadium during the 1968 World Series.  

Tastes can differ but so long as the musician does not make a mockery of the National Anthem like Rosanne Barr did in 1990, we can tolerate it so long as the lyrics are not butchered or altered.

To combat this ignorance and indolence about the Star Spangled Banner, Shelli Manuel took a multi-faceted approach.  After singing at a subdued 2014 bicentennary celebration for the Star Spangled Banner in Baltimore, Shelli Manuel sprang into action.  Manuel organized Sing It America to educate the public about our National Anthem.  The group convinced the United States Senate to honor and give thanks to the Star Spangled Banner  to have a year long celebration of the Star Spangled Banner. Moreover, Senate Resolution. 550 (2014) expresses the Senate sentiment that all the current verses of the Star Spangled Banner remain the National Anthem in perpetuity, including the "Forgotten Prayer Verse"

But aside from symbolic Senate votes, Sing It America launched a comprehensive educational program to help students learn about the Star Spangled Banner.  

In the Bicentennial year, the National Symphony Orchestra premiered a new symphonic arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner at "A Capitol Fourth". But Shelli Manuel wanted to demonstrate that the Star Spangled Banner can be performed well in a variety of arrangements and settings.  So Sing It America arranged a Marathon 24 hour celebration of the Star Spangled Banner on the 201st anniversary from 5am to 5am on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Dozens of groups will sing the National Anthem every hour on the hour.

This dedication to the Star Spangled Banner shows that the National Anthem is not just a pro-forma tradition before sporting events.  The Sing It America Marathon and educational efforts invite Americans to deeply enter into the meaning of the Star Spangled Banner and see the lyrics of our National Anthem as a credo reflecting our freedom, our history, acknowledgement of Divine Providence, and self defense.

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