Home of the brave anthem singers

In a switch, the Britt Festivals caught some flak for not doing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Usually you get in trouble not for not doing it, but for doing it.

When famed conductor Igor Stravinsky used a minor/major seventh chord (a major seventh with a flatted third) in his arrangement of the song in 1944, the Boston Police Department pounced. The cops warned that there was a $100 fine for ANY "rearrangement of the national anthem in whole or in part." You can hear this at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHYCqFfpNGQ.

Can't remember the lyrics, either?

"The Star-Spangled Banner"

Oh! say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight

O'er the ramparts we watched 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.

Oh! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

(If you want to see somebody nail the "Banner," check out Robert Merrill, who sang it at Yankee Stadium for years, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZQ7HWS_2y4).

(Britt's decision was about a level playing field. Three conductors are essentially auditioning for the job of the classical festival's music director. The tradition is to open the three-week season, not every concert, with the anthem. And clearly it wouldn't do to have one candidate play the song and not the others.)

The harmonics police haven't been seen lately. But if such a law were enforced today, singers would be in trouble. You can't watch a ball game without a country singer twanging it up or some pop singer melismatically packing in the extra syllables like a Japanese train pusher cramming butts into the commuter special.

I blame this largely on Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Beyoncé Knowles and Christina Aguilera have also wreaked havoc. The problem is that when pop singers sing the song, it usually sounds as if it's about them.

A funny take on this occurred in an episode of "The Simpsons" in which Springfield R&B artist Bleeding Gums Murphy sang a soul version that went on until the sun went down, the moon came up, and everybody went to sleep. The song's first word, "oh," had about 20 syllables. You can hear it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7xixfoG8Ag.

The "Banner" goes way back, but its anthemhood doesn't. It didn't become such until 1931. There were other contenders: "Hail, Columbia," "America the Beautiful" and "America" ("My Country, 'Tis of Thee").

Like "America" (whose melody is that of "God Save the Queen"), the "Banner" is an English tune. The music was written by a man named John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a London social club of the 1700s where, after raising a few glasses, the old boys were wont to burst into song.

The lyrics are from the poem "Defence of Fort McHenry," written in 1814 by a lawyer, Francis Scott Key, who saw the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Chesapeake Bay by the British Navy.

Some people objected to a drinking song as the nation's anthem. Others wanted a song with more attractive imagery. "America the Beautiful," say, with its purple mountains and fruited plain instead of those rockets and bombs bursting and glaring.

But the strongest objection may be the tune itself. With a range of one-and-a-fifth octaves, it's nearly impossible for anybody who hasn't had classical voice training.

If it's done in C, that wince-inducing "freeeeee" note is G5, which is 19 half-steps above middle C. And since the song is often performed a cappella, there's nothing to get the singer started in a key she can handle.

That G5 is Smith's revenge on us for stealing his song. Somewhere, as veins pop out on the necks of audiences straining to shriek "freeeeeeee," he and his tipsy comrades are laughing.

Performances are often cringe-worthy. Think Aerosmith's Steven Tyler screeching it out at the Super Bowl. R&B legend Anita Baker flaming out on the high notes at the 2010 NBA Finals. Olympics Champion Carl Lewis booed and humiliated in 1993 when his voice betrayed him.

For reasons harder to understand, singers — we're looking at you, Cyndi Lauper and Christina Aguilera — often have trouble with the lyrics. At the U.S. Open in Flushing, N.Y., Lauper sang, "our flag was still streaming." Aguilera, at the 2011 Super Bowl, sang, "what so proudly we watched at the twilight's last reaming," instead of "o'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming."

This sort of mishap is often seen by crowds as unpatriotic. So some singers resort to crib sheets. But crowds hate this, too. Michael Bolton lost an audience when he peeked at the notes he'd scrawled on his hand. Fans at baseball's All Star Game turned on country singer Luke Bryan for the same thing.

The version inflicted on the world by Roseanne Barr at a San Diego Padres game in 1990 may have been the worst ever. She started in too high a key — the fatal error — and got screechier as she went. She ended by grabbing her crotch and pretending to spit on the pitcher's mound at the end.

The theatrics at the end were supposed to send up the on-field antics of baseball players, not to disrespect the anthem. But the crowd wanted blood. Good thing Barr wasn't singing at a Rangers or Astros game, she'd probably have been lynched.

Trouble just follows this thing.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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