It’s our song. America’s song. This stately, majestic anthem continues to be sung – or played – every day at some place – no, many places – around our nation and this world. It is the song of these United States of America, and it is the one thing all of us have in common.
If you’re my age, you may have heard the National Anthem played at night, on your TV, as the station signed off into snowy white noise. Usually sometime around 11:00 pm or midnight. Of course, everyone anticipates the National Anthem before a sporting event, and many events, like the Super Bowl, the World Series, and NASCAR can give us some grandiose performances. Regardless, it is the song that unites us all.
The Star Spangled Banner
Francis Scott Key wrote the words on September 3, 1814, after watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Key, a lawyer and novice poet, penned 4 verses and titled the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Only the first verse is used in our National Anthem. Oddly, the tune was written by Brit James Stafford Smith and used in a men’s social club in London. It was a popular tune on both sides of the Atlantic, and when Key’s text was paired with Smith’s tune, the song grew in familiarity throughout the states and soon came to be known as “The Star Spangled Banner.”
In 1889, the U.S. Navy established the song for official use, and in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson officially recognized the song as the National Anthem. Congress made it official in 1931, passing a resolution that established “The Star Spangled Banner” as the National Anthem of the United States.
Careful as You Go
Musically, the National Anthem is a difficult song to sing. Its range spans 1 1/2 octaves and in very few instances does the melody proceed step-wise. You need to have a good grasp of your singing voice to attempt the anthem, because it will weave in and out of vocal registers and test your ability. If you’re not prepared, the battle described in the text can make itself evident in the performance.
I know. I’ve sung the National Anthem on many occasions and in front of thousands. It’s a tough gig, and you better know what you’re doing before you attempt it. And, to double the complexity, try singing it a cappella. Start it too low, and you’re low notes disappear. Start the song too high, and trouble comes when the extreme high notes loom in front of you like demons.
Performing the Anthem
My best advice when you’re asked to sing the National Anthem, especially unaccompanied, is to run the other way. Or, you can create some sort of excuse – “I’m getting my cat spayed that day,” or “The cable company is coming that day sometime between 6:00 am and midnight, and I have to be there so they won’t steal the silver” – that’ll get you out experiencing certain disaster.
If you have no choice, though, request a symphony orchestra accompany you. That’s a big help. Or, at least use a pitch pipe so you’ll start in the correct key. And, for goodness sakes, know the words. There’s nothing worse, or more un-American, than getting the words wrong.
Finally, and most important, just sing the song. This is a not a time for the spot light to be on you and your vocal acrobatics. It’s about honoring our nation. There is nothing more selfish and self-serving than to embellish the anthem so much that it barely resembles the original. It’s hard enough to sing as it is…just sing the song.
There have been some notable performances of the National Anthem. Some really good, and some…well…really, really bad. Some arrangements are beautiful and maintain the honor intended by the song, and some amount to national blasphemy. Some are unique to the performer, and some performances are criminal.
Two performances, however, stand out as the standards by which any performance of the National Anthem should measured. In these two performances, the bar is set high.
The first is a performance by the U.S. Academy Choirs and the U.S. Army Herald Trumpet Corps. This one will make you proud to be an American.
The second example is by Whitney Houston. In this performance, the National Anthem is presented with beauty, grace, respect, and power. The F-16 fly over at the end doesn’t hurt, either.
So, when you get ready to perform the National Anthem, remember these two performances. You can’t improve on these. So, with humility (and fear), just sing the song. Let the focus be on our nation…not you.