Our national anthem

Published 11:16 am Thursday, March 17, 2011

Among the songs we learned to sing in the public schools I attended here and in Mooresville and Durham was “The Star Spangled Banner,” with its stirring words by Francis Scott Key.

As with hymns in church, we sang all the verses. They made us feel good about being Americans. We were taught to stand respectfully when it is played or sung, too.

I attended a solo recital by pianist Van Cliburn shortly after his triumphant return from Russia. Coming on stage, he strode directly to the piano, playing the opening notes of the National Anthem as he settled onto the bench.

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The applause stopped as we clambered to our feet to hear him produce a truly awe-inspiring version of the piece. That is the only time I have seen a recitalist do that.

Over the intervening years, pop vocalists have rendered (as in dismembered, or making lard) the piece in ways that I found distressing, certainly not respectful! I just got an e-mail that I shared with many, and to which I received a goodly number of responses that agreed with it and with me.

I do not know who wrote it, but it is addressed to the performers at recent sporting events.

After asking them to consider their audience and to sing it “straight up, no styling,” the author concludes, “Sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ with the courtesy and humility that tells the audience that it is about America, not you.” To which those friends and I all say “Amen!”

To us, an anthem is not a pop song or ballad. It is meant to inspire love of God or country, not to entertain. However, the tune for our National Anthem started life as a drinking song in merrie olde England.

I suppose it might take a few beers to get most of us to attempt the octave-and-a-half compass of the tune! The pub crawlers over there must have been quite amused by our elevating it to anthem status.

Our Columbus Lions Club sings another English tune to open our meetings because it lies within an octave and is therefore easier for us to sing. The British sing “God Save the King/Queen” while we sing of “America.”

I usually get to lead it, and I start it low so as not to pressure the ladies voices an octave above us. We do sing it respectfully, if perhaps a little too profoundly slow.

In reading up on this, I was astonished to learn that “The Star Spangled Banner” was not declared to be our National Anthem by Congress until 1931! Key wrote those words during the War of 1812.

One John Stafford Smith composed the tune in the 1770s. Looks as if the making of the anthem spanned more than a century and a half. And I am older than its official status!

What did our ancestors sing? Apparently it was mostly “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” In school we often sang Katherine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful” to Samuel A. Ward’s tune Materna. It expresses well for me a lot of what I think is good about our country. Bates revised her poem two times to get what we know now, and the words also fit the tune of “Auld Lang Syne!” I think Materna works better.

“America” was probably rejected because its tune is the National Anthem of Great Britain. Many think that “America the Beautiful” should have been chosen.

I like them all, but I am conditioned to respond to “The Star Spangled Banner,” though I no longer have the vocal range to sing it.

I look forward to our local celebration of Independence Day. I am thankful that we have Patti and Tina to sing for us.