O say can you ... sing “The Star-Spangled Banner?”
You’ve heard our national anthem thousands of times and probably even know a few of the words, but it’s a difficult song to wrangle, even for the most accomplished of singers. Its wide melodic range, archaic language and the pressure that comes with performing the song live — say at a gigantic sporting event — have tripped many a vocalist. Remember Christina Aguilera flubbing the lyrics at the Super Bowl a few years ago?
“Every single time I get to ‘broad stripes and bright stars,’ in my head, I’ll be thinking, ‘Did I just sing that backwards?’ ” says Karen Newman, who has performed the song the past 25 years before Red Wings games at Joe Louis Arena. “I’ll be playing that conversation in my head while I’m continuing to sing, and when I walk off I’ll say to my sound guy, ‘Did I sing that right?’ ”
Today, as we celebrate Independence Day, you’re likely to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” at parades, fireworks displays and at the Tigers game. The anthem turns 200 years old this year, and despite being full of superannuated language — how many other examples of watching ramparts do you know of? — it is as much a symbol of our country as the American flag or the Statue of Liberty.
“It’s a huge song,” Newman says. “It has all the drama and all the fireworks that our country deserves.”
The song was penned — or quilled, rather — by Francis Scott Key in September of 1814 during the Battle of Baltimore, two years into the War of 1812. Early one morning after the American forces were bombarded at Fort McHenry, Key watched as the American flag still waved triumphantly in the sky and wrote a poem about what he saw.
That poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” was set to the tune of “To Anacreon In Heaven,” a 1778 song that was the theme song of an 18th-century gentleman’s club known as the Anacreontic Society. (Writing to pre-existing songs was the sampling of its day, so you can say Key had a little bit of hip-hop in him.) It was not Key’s first time setting words to the composition — he also wrote a song to the same tune nine years earlier — but this one stuck.
It picked up steam and was played at public celebrations throughout the 19th century. It was eventually recognized as the national anthem 100 years later, first by Woodrow Wilson (who in 1916 ordered it be played at military occasions) and later by Herbert Hoover (who in 1931 signed a resolution making it our national anthem).
There is no one “correct” way to sing it, and many have offered their own interpretations, from Jimi Hendrix’s feedback-drenched electric guitar version at Woodstock to Marvin Gaye’s showstopping R&B version at the 1983 NBA All-Star game to Whitney Houston’s (pre-recorded) 1991 Super Bowl rendition.
Requiring some sort of conformity within the anthem would “eviscerate its patriotic potential,” says Mark Clague, an associate professor of musicology at the University of Michigan. What matters to him is the sincerity of the expression within it.
“Every time you sing the song, you make an identity claim, that this is what America is and these people participating in this ritual are under the banner of freedom that this country represents,” he says. “It’s a poetic re-enactment of participational democracy every single time it’s performed.”
Anthem an artistic statement
The national anthem endures not only because it is so closely tied with the American flag, but because of its strength both lyrically and musically, Clague says.
The first verse, which is the most commonly recognized in the song and the one that has been popularized over the years, has eight lines — many National Anthems have only four — and Clague points out that within those eight lines are nine rhymes.
The language of the song makes it unique — the word “spangled,” for example, is seldom used outside the context of the national anthem anymore — and its emotional trajectory connects with listeners.
“It takes you on this journey over eight lines,” Clague says. “It shows you a struggle, and victory and devotion at the end.”
Technically, the song covers an octave and a fifth, and it “requires energy and passion to pull off,” Clague says.
He says lines five and six — “and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air/ gave proof through the night that our flag was still there” — warrants a deep breath on the singer’s part.
Add the high note at the end, and the song can be a bit of a high wire act, which is precisely what makes it so enduring.
“What makes it hard,” Clague says, “is what makes it magical.”
Rhymes require concentration
Even after singing it hundreds of times, Newman still gets nervous.
“It’s a huge song, and it’s a huge responsibility,” she says.
Newman says she’s never botched the song, but the nerves remain, right up until she hits the “rockets’ red glare” line. Then she knows she’s in the clear.
For LaShell Renee, who has sang the anthem before Detroit Pistons games the last several seasons, it’s the “gleaming” and “streaming” rhyme that trips her up.
“You can get those so twisted if you don’t concentrate,” she says. “The sound is kind of similar, so you have to make sure you just said, ‘gleaming,’ and don’t repeat ‘gleaming’ again. I have to remember it’s ‘gleaming’ first, and after that I’m OK.”
Caleb Gutierrez of Detroit rock band the Infatuations has sang the anthem before several Tigers games, and nerves aside, he says the song is not amateur territory. “You’ve gotta be a singer to sing that song,” he says.
But it’s not just a song for professionals, it’s a song for everybody.
At the Redford Theatre, filmgoers sing the national anthem before every movie, just the way they have for more than 40 years.
It’s part of the revival house’s charm, says Liam Neary, the Redford’s treasurer.
“People love hearing it and love singing it,” he says. “I can’t think of a day that somebody would say, ‘Why are we still doing this?’ ”
That’s because of everything the anthem means, and has meant for generations, and will continue to mean long into the future.
“I think because of what our country stands for and what we’ve endured, it speaks of unity, of how you want it to be for everyone in this world,” Renee says. “That song, and the representation of the flag and the strength that we have as a country, that’s why that song, to me, is powerful. Proud, brave, strong, fighters — that’s what it represents to me.”