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Jeff Simon: A common sense guide to the national anthem

Jeff Simon

On one side of the argument, we've got Roseanne Barr who was just thrown off the ABC network for racist tweets that all the atom-smashing sitcom ratings in the world couldn't fix. It's her pre-Trump self that caused the greatest trouble of her early career.

On the other side, we have the president of the United States who wants nothing but institutionalized contempt for anyone with less than total reverence for "The Star-Spangled Banner." In response to his agitation, the National Football League has decided to require anthem protesters to remain in the locker room while it's played at games, rather than take a knee in protest against racial injustice a la Colin Kaepernick (who still can't find a berth on an NFL team).

Barr may be a dedicated Trumper now but on July 25, 1990, she became the central figure in the greatest public dis ever suffered by the national anthem by singing it before a Reds/Padres baseball doubleheader in San Diego. She sang the worst version anyone had ever heard and ended it by grabbing her crotch and spitting for final punctuation. Millions were not amused, among them President George H. W. Bush.

It would have been a funny satiric joke if people had encountered it in its proper place – a small comedy club. In front of a national TV audience and thousands of people at a baseball game, it was too easy to confuse her satire with a mockery of all patriotism.

It was nothing of the sort. It was a savage mockery of the notably odd way Americans have decided to begin sporting events with heavy and official patriotic sentiment, after which ballplayers are free to spit, adjust their underwear and do lord knows what. It was satire that was far more effective than intended because it was so misplaced and unexpected.

But now that a tweeting and lecturing president has sports teams  telling the world that they have no desire to celebrate major victories in the White House, even if asked, it seems time for a common sense guide to the national anthem.

I first noticed something odd about it in my very late teens (drinking age was 18 back then). A couple of us, after nights of substantial  consumption of malted beverages, discovered how much fun we had singing the national anthem at the top of our lungs, whether we hit all the notes or not. Pop singers hate the song's leaping wide intervals. Obnoxious young caterwaulers love them. We felt we were being young and edgy as well as heretical and obnoxious.

Not so. We were, in fact, being true to the melody of the song.

Francis Scott Key didn't write "The Star-Spangled Banner" - at least not the melody. He wrote the words in a four-stanza poem called "The Defense of Fort M'Henry." As he watched a flag survive the onslaught at Fort McHenry on Sept. 14, 1814, he wrote the poem whose first stanza became the lyric to the national anthem when it was stuffed into a ready-made melody.

Here's where it gets fascinating. The melody was, as best we can determine, by English composer John Stafford Smith for a drinking song to be used by the Anacreontic Society in London. It was originally called "To Anacreon in Heaven," music by Smith, original lyrics by Ralph Tomlinson.

"To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee

A few sons of harmony sent a petition

That he their inspirer and patron would be

When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:

Voice, Fiddle and Flute

No longer be mute

I'll lend my name and inspire you to boot."

So who was John Stafford Smith? Smith (1750-1836) was a church organist, musical antiquarian and composer of all sorts of things. It's even possible he didn't write the original melody, but collected an anonymous melody which he then included in a collection that he edited.

Who was Anacreon besides the subject of the original "glee" song? Anacreon was a Greek poet of the  fifth century B.C., famous for his secular hymns and drinking songs in Ionic dialect. Classic Greek-speaking English poets loved to translate him – Lord Byron, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Moore. Here's a snatch from "Love" translated by Abraham Cowley:

"I'll sing of heroes and Kings

in mighty numbers, mighty things

Begin my muse!--but lo! the strings

To my great song rebellious prove;

The strings will sound of nought but love."

We use Smith's melody now to fire up stadiums full of beer-drinking citizens and then fly F-16's over their heads,  but the original Anacreon preferred playing love songs on his lute. Not for him were "heroes and kings in mighty numbers doing mighty things." He preferred, it seems, to remain in the locker room.

So was Roseanne Barr the first performer to get national attention in a national anthem controversy? No. That would probably be Jose Feliciano who is, at the age of 73, still with us. At a 1968 World Series game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers in Detroit, the blind Puerto Rican singer sang the national anthem so full of personal expression that it practically amounted to a recomposition of Smith's melody. It was vehemently idiosyncratic and rather powerful but people thought it was a horribly disrespectful thing to do to Smith's tune, even though it had once served for so long as a rowdy drinking song for the original British Glee clubs.

The Detroit announcer at that Tigers/Cardinals game was the great Ernie Harwell. He later introduced Feliciano to the woman who became his wife. Anacreon would have been happy to know that love indeed triumphed over all – somehow.

Funny early joke about "The Star-Spangled Banner." Robert Klein: "I was in the DeWitt Clinton High School Marching Band. One of the worst bands ever formed. When we played the national anthem, every country stood – except Americans."

What was the greatest version of "The Star Spangled-Banner?" Everyone has his or her choice. Mine is Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, famously followed by the perfectly timed flyover of a formation of F-16 jets. Houston's version wasn't entirely "straight" as it is sometimes now thought. There was a bit of ornamentation from her and an octave leap on one note at the end. But it trusted the actual song as usually sung to go with Houston's incredible voice and give everyone chills when she got to "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Runners-up to Houston in the national anthem sweepstakes. Donna Summer, Beyonce and, immortally, Jimi Hendrix in a bleary-eyed early morning at Woodstock who turned Smith's carousing drinking song into a note-bending free-electronic protest against war that may well last as long as American wars do.

Nobody ever said that Hendrix, as a musician, wasn't brave and free.





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