A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Friday, March 04, 2011

The National Anthem is not entertainment.

Yesterday, March 3, was the 80th anniversary of The Star Spangled Banner being officially named as our national anthem by Congress. Above is a picture of the actual flag that inspired the song.

My alter ego the History Geek has been stirred into activity by recent events surrounding that national anthem.

I pondered that fact while I am still trying to get out of my head the horrors of Christina Aguilera's alleged performance of the song at the Super Bowl. And the memory of other atrocities committed upon our official song.

Now look, like anyone else, I can admit that the song has flaws. A twelve note range is often asking a lot of ordinary people to sing. I get that.

And I realize that a first verse made up of three questions that are not actually answered plus one descriptive statement of explosive devices may not make the most actual sense in terms of describing any particular attributes of our country, let alone our flag (which is what, officially, the song purports to do).

Then there's the fact that the melody was originally used as a drinking song for the Anacreontic Society men's club in London, so it is absolutely ironic that we then used what was a liquor-infused melody of OUR ENEMIES AT THE TIME to eventually craft our national anthem.

I guess it is fitting that pretty much the only time people do sing it is when they are surrounded by alcoholic beverages at a sporting event of some sort.

So, I'll be honest. As a song, it's really not much. As an expression of who we are as a people, it is a nullity. But it is our song and we are used to it, and by being used to it, most of us have come to treasure it-- aesthetics questions aside.

But some people do not know how to behave when it comes to our national anthem. First, one should stand at rest in an attitude of attention. Conversation should cease, and one's attention should be placed upon the flag. Then, one should sing. If one wishes, one can place one's hand over his or her heart as a sign of reverence.

I was at an assembly at one of my kids' schools a while ago. There were a good number of other parents there, as well. The kids and the music teacher asked the crowd to join in the singing of the national anthem. I began singing, and about halfway through the second question, I noticed I was one of THREE people singing. The mother of one of my son's classmates was twisting her body around randomly as if she was having a serizure, and then I realized she was trying to scratch her back against the wall. A man in an Army uniform (rank of sergeant) was playing with his Blackberry in the row in front of me. One little old lady and I were holding down the fort, so to speak, at our end of the gym, and one of my colleagues who is a Navy veteran was booming it out with a lot of verve on the other end of the auditorium. One guy near me sang the first twelve words or so and then stopped. I kept on singing as I was performing this little inventory and just put it out of my mind. Then at the end of the assembly, I felt a tap on my shoulder and there was another little old lady who thanked me for my singing. Then the music teacher came over and said that I was the only one she could hear and thanked me as well. I have to admit I was both embarrassed by these encounters (I do sing loud; that's how Mama taught me) and abashed. Really? Is this the best we can do? But I did thank them after admitting that my volume knob is stuck at 11.

Then there was the whole Super Bowl incident. I turned to my friends sitting at my house at the time when they announced Christina Aguilera and said, "I didn't know that Christina Aguilera KNEW the words." We giggled, and fifteen seconds later, I WAS PROVED RIGHT. Twenty seconds later, it was proved beyond a reasonable doubt that SHE DIDN'T KNOW THE MELODY EITHER.

Really, shouldn't that be required?

And don't even start with me about the scratching the back or fiddling with electronic devices or swilling beer in the meantime, or watching our millionaire athletes jumping up and down or rolling their eyes heavenward in annoyance while this song is being sung.

But then I started thinking. Apparently, somewhere along the line, some people have gotten the idea that this song is a performance. An entertainment, which can be ignored or mocked as one wishes.

It is not.

Having "recording artists" stand up in front of thousands or millions and banshee their way through our national anthem as if they are trying to win a spot on American Idol has reinforced this perception.

They try to make it THEIR OWN song and emphasize their PERFORMANCE of it as unique. But really it is OURS. OUR song.

And I think we should take it back.

So perhaps it would be nice if, henceforth, at least at public events, we leave the alleged recording stars on the sideline, bring out a marching band (as we used to at the Super Bowl), and invite EVERYONE to sing, rather than passively watch some overwrought, dramatic, insincere performance.

As the camera pans the athletes, it should only show those who are reverently standing during the anthem and singing it. That might get the players' attention, publicity hounds that they tend to be. Anyone jumping up and down or scratching their unmentionables or playing with their hair should be ignored if not shamed.

And to answer the questions in the song itself: Yes, the flag still does wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave. Be glad.

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At 3/9/11, 9:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could not agree more.


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