I have to say right up front that I’ve never cared for the “Star Spangled Banner.” It’s difficult to sing, and it’s kind of ugly. The only time I’ve ever enjoyed listening to it was when Jimi Hendrix played it at Woodstock. Not only was this an iconic rendition, but then he did this really cool segue into “Purple Haze” by playing the opening of “Purple Haze” backwards off the ending of the “Star Spangled Banner.” It’s great.
As national anthem contenders go I’ve always been in the “America the Beautiful” camp. It’s a pretty song and unlike our actual national anthem it doesn’t have an eighteen-note range requiring either a lot of beer or a third lung. Of course it does have it’s lyric problems. First we have the “brotherhood” reference which is, of course, sexist. I suppose we could change the line to “and crown thy good with personhood from sea to shining sea” except personhood doesn’t mean anything. Next I would note that we are not bookended by seas. They’re oceans. And I don’t think it’s okay for a lyricist to identify a body of water as something it’s not just because they can’t come up with an acceptable preceding line that will work in tandem with the next line and produce an appropriate and technically correct rhyme (“God sheds his grace on our notions.” There. Perfect. How hard would that have been?)
But the biggest problem I have with the lyrics is the very opening of “O beautiful four spacious skies, four amber waves of grain, four purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plain.” I don’t know how many purple mountains there are in America, nor am I sure what constitutes one amber wave so that you can count them and arrive at a total of four, but I know there are not four skies. It’s just one sky. There’s four time zones but it’s just one really big sky covering all of them, not four. This is taking poetic license much too far. It’s stupid.
Also, try finding fruit on the plains.
So we’re back to the Star Spangled Banner, or as it was originally known “To Anacreon In Heaven.” Yes, our beloved national anthem started life as a bawdy English drinking song dedicated to a lascivious dead Greek limerick writer, with a melody written by not Haydn. And I can only guess that the choice of this melody, for our recent national purposes, was due to its being the only piece of music ever written in the last three hundred years that nobody bothered to copyright. As for the original words, they’re pretty racy stuff. Have a look for yourself, and try singing along. It’s great fun:
The yellow-hair’d God and his nine fusty maids
From Helicon’s banks will incontinent flee,
Idalia will boast but of tenantless shades,
And the bi-forked hill mere desart will be.
My thunder no fear on’t, shall soon do its errand,
And dam’ me! I’ll swinge the ringleaders, I warrant.
I’ll trim the young dogs, for thus daring to twine
The myrtle of Venus with Bachus’s vine.
Ho-ho! Excuse me if I’m blushing. What a rouser. I especially like the part about my thunder not being afraid of on’t. And I think the less said about Venus’s myrtle the better. So let’s not go there (I am confused by the phrase “tenantless shades,” however. I can see tenants not having shades, which would be inconvenient, but I don’t know how shades cannot have tenants. At least I don’t see why shades would care if they had tenants or not. They’re shades. Do they need to be pulled down and raised on a regular basis or they die, or what?)
But whatever the pros or cons about the Star Spangled Banner, I can definitely say one thing about it: it’s changed over the last few years. When I was a kid we’d go to the baseball game and before it started, with great pride and gusto, the announcer would say, “Please all rise to sing our National Anthem.” Then the park organist would hold the starting note for several seconds so that everybody–meaning thousands of people–would all start on the same note. But then, as time passed, there started to be this trend of inviting special people, like celebrities and singers, to lead everybody in singing the National Anthem. Here the announcer would say, “Please all rise and sing as Wayne Newton leads us through our National Anthem.” And it wouldn’t be much different than normal (except that we could look at a famous person and be flattered with his taking an interest in something we did), but the organist would give us our note and then all of us, including Wayne, would start singing together.
But then the trend evolved further, bringing us to the present day version of the National Anthem, where a person with an unusually good set of pipes, and who could sing “Danke Schoen” through one nostril while eating a pork chop at the same time, is invited to the festivities. And the announcer introduces them by saying, “Please all rise as Marilyn Vanity sings our National Anthem. And please don’t interrupt.”
Yes, it’s no longer a song of unity but, rather, an opportunity for one person to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for having created the most self-absorbed spectacle to ever initiate a professional sporting event.
If you are a famous person with a magnificent voice, and you are asked to sing the National Anthem prior to the World Series, keep in mind that the bar has been set really high. Now, you may be brimming with confidence and absolutely positive that you will sing the National Anthem better than anyone ever did, and tomorrow you’ll be on the news and your rendition will go viral on the Internet because of your major degree of awesomeness, but you nonetheless need to be aware that this can potentially be the most embarrassing moment of your life and possibly damage your career to the point where you end up living in a cardboard box by the railroad tracks where hobos who don’t even own televisions come by just to spit on you in disgust. How? By you forgetting the words. While nobody in America actually understands the words, most of us have a good idea of what order they’re supposed to go in. Don’t screw this up. To help you not forget the words, I’ve taken the time to write them down for you. Here they are:
Oh-oh say can you see, how well I sing this song,
Extending notes and adding trills, so that you can’t sing along.
And as you must agree, this song’s all about me,
No, not you, or us or we…or any crap like that.
And when I hit this note, I will really showboat
Going higher than I need, just to see if your ears bleed.
Oh say to all your friends, even if you only have a few-ewww,
How impressed you are with me–eeeeeeeee!
In comparison to you.