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US National Anthem Remains Revered, But a Nightmare for Many to Sing - 2003-08-06


The tune to the U.S. national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner", is an old English drinking song. Francis Scott Key wrote the words as a patriotic poem during the War of 1812 with Britain. Together, the words and music have become the ceremonial starting point for many assemblies and sporting events. The audience and players remove their hats or place their hands over their hearts for this brief dose of patriotism. While most Americans know and revere the anthem, singing it can be a nightmare.

Even before "The Star-Spangled Banner" was made the official U.S. national anthem in 1931, big brass bands were giving it the stirring John Philip Sousa treatment. Often a colorful military honor guard would be on hand, snapped to attention, with the stars-and-stripes flag held high.

Singers also usually affected a crisp, martial air. But one fall day in 1968, as the weary nation coped with protests against the unpopular Vietnam War and the assassination of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Junior, the tradition changed. Like any other song, The "Star-Spangled Banner" was suddenly opened to interpretation.

Before 54,000 stunned fans at a World Series baseball game in Detroit, Michigan, and millions of people watching on television, Jose Feliciano languidly delivered what he later said was an anthem of gratitude to a nation that had given the blind Puerto Rican singer and guitarist a chance.

It was the first time that someone dared improvise the anthem before a wide audience.

When Feliciano returned to his seat in the stands, he was shocked to learn that the stadium switchboard was alight with complaints about his soulful rendition. Military veterans reportedly threw shoes at their television sets. Callers demanded that the singer be deported, not realizing that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

But the floodgates were open. In arenas and stadiums across the nation, professional and amateur musicians alike began stylizing the tune.

If some Americans were outraged at Jose Feliciano's version, they hadn't heard anything yet. There was Jimi Hendrix's rendition at the Woodstock music festival a year later.

And U.S. Olympic track and field gold medalist Carl Lewis, trying and failing to carry the tune before a pro basketball game in New Jersey in 1993. According to the audience and newspaper reviewers, Lewis did not make up for it but defiled the patriotic meaning of the anthem.

In 2001, many who heard Aerosmith lead singer Steve Tyler's custom-made ending to the anthem at the Indy 500 car race.

"And the home of the...
...Indianapolis 500!

Thought it insulted the "home of the brave."

And no one who heard it will soon forget perhaps the most outrageous public performance of the anthem ever, when someone inexplicably invited the raunchy comedienne Roseanne Barr to sing it before a baseball game in San Diego.

Ms. Barr did not help matters when she spit and grabbed her crotch during her so-called singing of the anthem.

But even those who perform the "Star-Spangled Banner" reverently can run into problems. Though many Americans sing along with the anthem hundreds of times in their lives, remembering each and every word when performing it in front of thousands can be tricky.

Robert Goulet has never lived down the moment he messed up just one word in the anthem when he sang, "Oh say, can you see, by the dawn's early NIGHT" - instead of "light" - at the famous Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston heavyweight fight in 1965. "Hey," Mr. Goulet pointed out, "the song's got 'night,' 'light,' 'twilight,' 'bright,' and 'fight' in it."

And the anthem has been called "the toughest two minutes in singing." Myrna Reynolds, a former New York City opera performer now living in Connecticut, who has sung the anthem many times before large audiences, says the melody escalates an octave and a half. You can start at a comfortable pitch but find yourself straining to reach the top notes. "But you don't want to start too low, to the point that you lose the bottom out of your range, either, because then you have no projection on those bottom pitches," she says.

There have been many critically praised performances of the anthem. Marvin Gaye at a basketball all-star game in 1983. The Dixie Chicks at this year's football Super Bowl. And, even though she lip-synched the song, Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl.

It's not just celebrities who have delivered memorable performances. Professional sports franchises like the Washington Mystics women's basketball team invite the public to audition. One of the team's receptionists, 45-year-old Sherelle Cary Smith, who once sang with an elite touring group and briefly was a backup singer in Los Angeles before leaving to raise her daughter, told her boss she'd be a standby anthem singer, just in case. Sure enough she says, "I was at my desk, and Damian walked up to me and said, 'Our singer has laryngitis. Would you mind filling in?' And I went, 'Oh!' Thank goodness I wore a nice dress that day."

It was amazing, Shirelle Smith says, to pace before her big moment in the same dressing room where famous acts had also prepared. When she was escorted onto the court and introduced, she says, she was calm and confident. "I rehearsed in my mind how scared I was going to be so that I could actually overcome the fear. You're singing without any music, so you're worried about your pitch. The lyrics, you have to make sure you get those right, because people do listen, and they know when you're saying the wrong thing," she says.

Sharelle Smith did just fine, so well, in fact, that she's been put on the roster of anthem singers for the men's pro basketball games in Washington come fall. "I have about eight family members in the Air Force now, so it's an honor for me to sing the song," she says.

There have been half-hearted efforts to change the national anthem to a tune that's easier to sing, like "God Bless America" or a new song that someone would write. But veterans' groups and other supporters of tradition have denounced that idea almost as roundly as they booed Roseanne Barr.

VOA intern Carlos Diaz contributed to this report.