“Please rise and join in the singing of the national anthem.”
For sports fans of all stripes, these words are generally met with a roll of the eyes and a silent “Ugh!” And it’s not only at ballparks and sports arenas that we are confronted with this stressful request: many non-sports-related events begin with the singing of the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The anthem is supposed to invoke pride. But since most of us are just trying to get through the melody without our voices cracking, we may not be aware of how violent the lyrics are, invoking “bombs bursting in air” as the backdrop to a flag’s survival. For those of us who have no business vocalizing in public, we are asked to sing a song that way beyond our vocal capabilities – almost a two-octave range.
Robert Goulet, a singer of French-Canadian ancestry with a very powerful baritone voice, famously became synonymous with the national anthem − or rather the mangling of it − in the mid-1960s. On May 25, 1965, prior to the second Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston boxing match, Goulet had more trouble with the song than Ali had with Liston, who was knocked out in the first round by the famous “phantom punch.” Goulet had more than the vocal chops to sing the melody, but at several intervals, he faked his way through the lyrics. (For an audio of the infamous performance and a recap of the evening, go to 3:40 of the audio to hear Goulet’s unfortunate rendition.)
So it’s a double whammy: an impossible song to sing, with too many words to remember.
When I was a young lad and an avid baseball fan, most of the canned versions of the national anthem were bland. There was an instrumental version that was played at minor league games that I attended. It was more like a march and the phrasing of the melody was unlike anything I ever heard, before or since. Then of course, there was the classic Robert Merrill version that was played at Yankee Stadium for almost four decades, from the late 1960s into the new millennium.
But the most heartfelt rendition − and the most controversial − was performed on Monday, October 7, 1968 at the fifth game of the World Series. Until that time, the national anthem was performed in an “acceptable” traditional manner – no trills, no emoting, no changing the melody – then along came José Feliciano.
Having played hooky to watch the game on television, I watched Feliciano’s performance. It was very moving and unlike anything I had experienced before. Singing with just his guitar as accompaniment, Feliciano changed some of the melody, added some chord changes that improved the original, and sang it with intense feeling. As the final chord from his guitar faded, NBC was inundated with thousands of phone calls, protesting that Feliciano had been disrespectful to his country. If you listen to the performance today with the perspective of almost fifty years, the reaction of viewers seems like much ado about nothing (perhaps because there have been some really awful renditions since that time, e.g. Roseanne Barr’s God-awful rendition in 1990). Feliciano’s remains the most moving rendition I ever heard, but his career never recovered.
So if our national anthem induces social stress and destroys careers, what are we to do? The answer is obvious and not very original. Get rid of the damn song! Replace it with something that can be sung in less than a minute with a melody that even Gilbert Gottfried can sing.
But what song should replace our beloved national anthem? I have four nominations for respectable replacements:
- “God Bless America”
- “God Bless the USA”
- “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee (also known as “America”)
- “America the Beautiful”
I chose these, in part, because a large portion of the American population is already familiar with them. But I also have my reasons for rejecting three of them. First, let’s nix “God Bless America” and “God Bless the USA,” for several reasons, but the obvious one is the numerous mentions of God in both lyrics. Which God is blessing our country? Jesus? Jehovah? Allah? Sinatra? I can envision fights breaking out in the stands even before the first pitch. There are also too many first-person references in both songs. So with the understanding that 1) we don’t need to encourage narcissism in today’s political climate and 2)“God Bless the USA” is too damn long, I submit an adamant thumbs-down to these two perennial favorites.
“My Country ‘Tis of Thee”? Nope. It’s the same melody as “God Save the Queen,” the national anthem of the United Kingdom; since we declared our independence in 1776, we shouldn’t be singing our national anthem to their tune.
So the winner – by default – is…”America the Beautiful.” But even this song has its flaws. The lyrics are all in the third person and that’ll be tough on some American narcissists. And there is one mention of God in the lyric, but at least it’s not in the title! This should be no problem, except for the most virulent of religious skeptics.
Finally, unlike “The Star Spangled Banner” the alternate verses of “America the Beautiful” are as good as the first verse (the one you probably know with “amber waves of grain” and “purple mountain majesties”). Maybe we should even consider singing the third verse instead of the first. (And watch Ray Charles’ version as you absorb its meaning.)
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!
In celebrating the American spirit of independence, I look forward to your opinions about my irreverent attitude regarding our national anthem. What are your nominations?
Michael Kramer is a professional musician who has worked in Central Florida for 30 years. He has accompanied many well-known performers including Merv Griffin, Bobby Rydell, and Julius LaRosa. And his piano offerings can be heard in the motion pictures, “Heartbreakers” and “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius.” Michael has played with the Cab Calloway and Nelson Riddle Orchestra. And for his contributions to the community, Michael was named Seminole County’s Artist of the Year 2010 by the Seminole Cultural Arts Council. He is the proud father of two (including GrokNation contributor Samantha Taylor) and a grandfather of three.