The Star Spangled Banner—Our National Anthem and Musical "Home of the Brave"
by Jack Hayford
"In an attempt to take Baltimore, the British attacked Fort McHenry, which protected the harbor. Bombs were soon bursting in air, rockets were glaring, and all in all it was a moment of great historical interest. During the bombardment, a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner, and when, by the dawn's early light, the British heard it sung, they fled in terror!" —Humorist Richard Armour
Such is the fear and trepidation instilled in singers and listeners alike when it comes to our National Anthem. I don't know why, but I've personally experienced some unforgettable Star Spangled Events in Music.
When I was in college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, I performed music in clubs as a job. Somewhere along the line I picked up the UF Baseball Team as fans and they'd show up at my gigs en masse pretty often.
One of them got the idea that I should sing the National Anthem at their games, and proceeded to sell the notion to then Head Coach Jay Bergman, who has coached the UCF Golden Knights for over 20 years. That should give you some idea of how long "The Anthem" has held special meaning for me.
Anyway, Coach Bergman agreed that I could sing the Anthem. (He knew NOTHING about me but acquiesced to his players just the same). Not only did they want me to sing at their regular season home games, they wanted me to sing it FIRST at the UF/New York Yankees exhibition game (which around this time was an annual event at UF).
Now this wasn't just any game. This was the back-to-back 1977-78 WORLD CHAMPION NEW YORK YANKEES. This was the Reggie Jackson Yankees. The Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry Yankees. The Graig Nettles and Goose Gossage Yankees. The Billy Martin Yankees.
I must have been just plain stupid (I was young), because I wasn't at all nervous about singing the National Anthem at home plate in front of the World Champion NY Yankees, a packed Perry Field (maybe about 5,000 people at the old park), and GOD.
I wasn't nervous. But as I approached the field, with the Gator squad at attention down the third-base line, the NY frickin' Yankees (I'm a Red Sox fan!) down the first-base line, it occurred to me suddenly, that it had occurred to Coach Bergman suddenly, that he might have a little situation on his hands.
This was a BIG EVENT for the Gator baseball team (UF was all about football back in those days). Yankee Owner George Steinbrenner was a BIG UF booster (and likely still is). I doubt that Steinbrenner was there but pretty much the rest of the big-league squad was on hand. (Interestingly, George Steinbrenner was born on the 4th of July, 1930!) And then Coach Bergman finally realized...as this kid that he had never seen or heard before, wearing a white faux leather jacket (it's cold in Gainesville in early spring) with an enormous (it was the seventies!) collar, approached home plate to sing arguably the hardest song in the world to get right...well, Coach had a moment.
I saw the fear in his eyes. He did that little finger wave to me that coaches do to call a player over to the sideline...or use to "give me the ball" when they make a pitching change. That coach finger wave that says, "I got somethin' to say to you, kid."
So with my little pitch-pipe in hand I sauntered over to Coach Bergman who met me just off the plate, head lowered. "You sure you can sing this gol-darn thing, aren't ya?"
Well, like I say, at that point in my life, I probably was just stupid enough to feel invincible. It was a big moment for me. I was one of the players that day. They were my friends, my team. And I was confident. I had practiced hard. I had been singing the song every day for a couple of weeks prior to the game. I had recorded myself singing it and listened to it over and over. I was as prepared as I could be.
And that's what I told Coach Bergman. "Don't worry Coach...I can do it." And I did do it and it wasn't anything great but I started on the right pitch (CRUCIAL FOR THAT SONG for those like me with a limited range!), I remembered all the words and I hit all the notes. It didn't suck.
I don't remember looking at Coach Bergman at the end of the song. But I do remember Yankees Skipper Billy Martin, who stood just to my right, tipping his cap to me, just slightly, and mouthing, "good job." Whew!
It all worked out. (Except Graig Nettles hit a game-tying or winning grand slam home run off my friend Mike McCarthy...CRUSHED IT...to put an end to any hopes that the Gators could actually beat these guys.)
Praise the Lord, I didn't embarass myself, my team, my city...my country. But man oh man are there ever some ugly musical moments in the history of that Grand Ol' Flag.
(By the way, although Billy Martin showed me some love, I got a little wake-up call in the locker room after the game. I was one of the last to approach Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson for his autograph. As he was handing me my torn-off piece of the Program with his signature on it he said dryly, and sincerely I might add..."I'm getting tired of this "sh*t." "Say it ain't so...say it ain't so!" Reggie retired in 1981.)
SIDEBAR: On October 18, 1977, Reggie Jackson hit 3 home runs in game six of the World Series vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Yankees won the Series 4-2 at Yankee Stadium.
That's my BIG Star Spangled Banner story (use the Contact Form to send me yours if you have one!), but I have witnessed a couple more very memorable performances of the Anthem that are noteworthy. Macy Gray at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, and Steven Tyler at the Indy 500.
Click here to read more about the famous Star Spangled Banner Flag at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Ultra-talented Julianne Hough from Dancing With The Stars fame sings our National Anthem at the 2008 Indianapolis 500. Well done!
Star Spangled Banner Lyrics
(Francis Scott Key wrote these words in 1814. He based the music on an English song called "To Anna Creon in Heaven," and wrote the lyrics after a battle he witnessed in the war of 1812.)
O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen thro' the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever when free-men shall stand
Between their lov'd home and the war's desolation;
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: In God is our trust!?
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
The Macy Gray SSB Debacle:
Although I had been to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game the previous year (2000) because I am a big New England Patriots fan (NE beat the San Francisco 49ers 20-0), in 2001 I went to the game to hear this much ballyhooed home-grown singing sensation, Macy Gray.
I had recently met and hung out with Linda Blum of Emerald Forest Entertainment, who has some of Macy Gray's publishing, at a Durango Songwriters Expo, so I was interested to hear this local singer turned phenom. (Macy Gray was born Natalie McIntyre in Canton, OH, in 1970.) She had just won a Grammy in 1999 for "I Try."
Her appearance at the HOF game was big local news. Everyone was going. And, as you might have gathered from the article above, I have a certain fascination with "who's gonna sing the Anthem." This year at the nationally-televised Hall of Fame Game (for many years the HOF game signaled the start of the Monday Night Football TV schedule) between the St. Louis Rams and the Miami Dolphins (Rams won the game 17-10), Canton's own Macy Gray was doing the honors.
Well, it was ugly indeed. She had some kind of a "posse" with her...kind of back-up singing, kind of rapping, kind of dancing. She sang along (or tried to) with some funky (but not very interesting) pre-recorded tracks. To me it seemed like they were supposed to be double-timing the lyrics over the music but it all fell apart and they ultimately turned off the tracks they were "singing to" because the "singers" got so far off the arrangement. (I might have dreamed this part but I recall one of the "back-ups" playing the tracks into a microphone from a boom-box. Otherwise, they were played from the announcer's booth.)
Anyway...it was God-awful. About half-way into the song the crowd started getting loud. By the end of the song "that Star-Span-gled Ban-ner" was engulfed by a very emphatic "chorus of boos" and the only thing waving was the fans telling Macy to get the bleep off the field. The feeling was virtually unanimous among the 22,000 plus people on hand, I'd say.
I don't remember what words she "sang." I just know they were wrong— ridiculously wrong. One AP report said that she "haltingly garbled the words into 'Oh say, can you see, by the twilight's last gleaming'." Whatever, it was a mess from start to finish and the only thing that saved her from the humiliation of walking half the length of the field to the cackles of a totally unsympathetic crowd, was the roar of the Air Force Fighter Planes flying low over Fawcett Stadium in the traditional pre-game finale.
Later, Macy said, "I've never stood in the middle of a football field with 25,000 people watching, with planes flying over me," she said. "I blanked and I couldn't believe I forgot the words...I have total respect for that song."
With all the butcherings of the Star Spangled Banner throughout time, who knows where this performance ultimately "ranks" (pun not really intended). But I can tell you this, it was the low point of that event. Said one blogged comment I read from a local resident, "I guess the Canton baseball team is inviting her to sing the National Anthem now, kinda to make up for it...but she declined. Phew!"
Amen. (And whoever made the rule that you only sing the first stanza of the The Anthem, well they should produce all the Super Bowl Half-Time Shows.)
Isn't Memorial Day Really About the Indy 500? —Aerosmith's Steven Tyler Seemed to Think So
I remember so well the cringe I felt coming on when Steven Tyler sang the National Anthem at the 2001 Indianapolis 500. I know why I cringed but until I started writing this little article, I had forgotten why most people cringed.
I cringed because Tyler, even with the incredible vocal range that he has always demonstrated, started the song too high. You can always tell, especially if you have a background in music, when an instrument (including the human voice, of course) is nearing the reach of its natural range. There's a tension. There's that "rubber band stretched to its limit...about to break" anxiousness that permeates the air. It makes you cringe.
When Tyler got to "...and the rocket's red glare" I started cringing. And by the time he got to the pinnacle of "...land of the free-eeeeeeee," well, the band had broken. He couldn't sustain the note, not for a second. So, being the great live performer that he is, he scatted and doo-wopped down to a retarded ending (yes, that is a pun), and (ugh) improvised the final line from "home of the brave" to "home of the Indianapolis 500."
Heavy cringe factor.
I clearly remember all of that. But I had forgotten some other newsworthy aspects of Tyler's appearance at Indy that year. Before he sang, Indiana natives Florence Henderson (yup, The Partridge Family mom -- whoops! That's The Brady Bunch, thanks to one of our readers!) and Jim Nabors also sang.
Henderson sang "America The Beautiful." Nabors sang "Back Home Again In Indiana." Both renditions were just about what you'd expect. Tame and traditional. (Jim Nabors, who portrayed Gomer Pyle in the The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, USMC has been singing "Back Home Again In Indiana" at the Indy 500 since 1972.)
A lot of people didn't much care for Tyler's version of the National Anthem, however. My take was that he just didn't pull it off very well, started on the wrong note, had to improvise the ending, and in doing so, mindlessly changed the words without realizing he might be offending many in the Memorial Day throng.
"It would have been nice had it been about us," said race fan and Vietnam veteran Don Gillingham, rolling up his sleeve to show a faded blue Navy tattoo. "Because it is Memorial Day weekend."
Tyler later apologized. "I got in trouble my whole life for having a big mouth," he said. "I'm very proud to be an American, and live in the home of the brave."
The musical brave that is.
"Christina Aguilera hit all the right notes during her pre-Super Bowl performance of the national anthem. But the right lyrics? Not so much....Aguilera completely dissed both the ramparts and the fact that o'er them, we could see the broad stripes and bright stars gallantly streaming, by skipping that line entirely.
Instead she sang: 'What so proudly we watched at the twilight's last gleaming.' That was a pseudo-repeat of the earlier lyric, 'What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming.'" —The Washington Post
The Late Great Marvin Gaye Sings the National Anthem
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