A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece in which I made some critical comments about the national anthem of the United States, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” describing it as, essentially, an unsingable and impossibly outdated song. (Let me just mention that NO ONE wrote a comment to contradict me or to defend the honor of said national anthem.) HERE is a link to that post.
In that article, I described the labored and convoluted early 19th-Century diction of the lyrics and the impossibly wide tonal range that the music demands of a singer. Since it was a barroom drinking song, it was meant to be sung in a group, preferably a group of individuals whose critical faculties had been dulled and whose tongues were loosened by the liberal application of alcohol. In that sense, it’s a perfect song for singing with ten or twenty thousand of one’s fellow citizens at a sporting event, because the big wall o’ sound tends to gloss over any individual’s inability to hit any specific note, particularly in the high part around “And the rockets’ red glare.”
BUT! One faithful reader was paying close attention, and brought forth a link to a performance of said anthem that simultaneously proves my assertion that only powerful, operatically-trained voices should attempt this number, while contradicting everything negative I said about the character of our national song. In a moment, I am going to provide you with a link to a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that, if one has a shred of national pride, will raise the hair on the back of your head. What I believe this impressive video proves is that we should not invite pop stars to sing this tune, and, lacking an appropriately-trained voice, we should either meekly join together with our fellow citizens and do our best at singing along with the stadium Wurlitzer or, if that’s not available, quietly hum along with a recorded version. For soloists, we should have REAL SINGERS.
The OTHER thing that the clip you’ll view teaches us is to GET ON WITH IT. The piece is immeasurably improved by being performed briskly. Don’t linger over notes you can’t sing and words you can’t remember: this is the gosh-darned NATIONAL ANTHEM and it should stir the true patriot’s feet to start marching and make the hands twitch to grasp a rifle or a plow and DO SOMETHING. It’s not an exercise in grace notes and long, sostenuto holds of notes you probably can’t sustain with any confidence. In this example, one of our premier national service bands — who play this number about fourteen times on an average day — show us how it should be done: with FEELING.
Here, then, is the distinguished baritone, Robert Merrill, accompanied by the United States Air Force Band, performing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” For those of you tuning in from England or Australia or Canada or France or China, we make no claim that our anthem is any better than “God Save the Queen/King;” “Advance Australia Fair;” Oh, Canada;” “Le Bouilliabaise;” or “The East is Red (and Black-and-Blue),” but in this setting, our national song stands proudly. When things are dark; when the taxman and the Kingdom of Death seem to surround you, brothers and sisters, play this one and remember the boys at Iwo Jima.
And to my faithful reader who sent me this link I’d like to say, “Thanks, Dad.”