Sing it again, Uncle Sam
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O say, can you sing?
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It's been in the news, and with Memorial Day coming, we thought we'd focus on one of the most consistently mangled songs in history -- "The Star-Spangled Banner." The controversial Spanish version titled "Nuestro Himno" ("Our Hymn") landed in the middle of the heated debate over immigration. What rubbed some Americans the wrong way was that it wasn't strictly a translation but included some new lyrics, and symbolized to some a fraying of the thread that holds America together. Or an inability to make it sound good in English.
"Grapefruit, through the night ..."
For all the outrage over the Spanish version, two of three Americans don't know all the words to the English version, according to a Harris Poll. The Morning File finds this surprising. We're stunned that one of three do know the words. There are a lot of Frank Drebins out there. Frank (Leslie Nielsen) is the idiot savant detective in "The Naked Gun." While impersonating an opera singer asked to do the honors at a ballpark, Frank warbles: " ... and the rocket's red glare, lots of bombs in the air."
The nation's music teachers are trying to change such sorry performances with a high-powered campaign called The National Anthem Project. It's traveling to 50 cities and includes an anthem-singing contest. Pittsburgh is not on the tour, but it will be in Columbus and Philadelphia in late summer.
Quick: What comes after "whose broad stripes and bright stars?" If you know the answer, you're part of the 39 percent minority that does, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports. People have continually complained that our national anthem is unsingable. Nearly a century ago, the New York Herald Tribune carped that Francis Scott Key's song had "words that nobody can remember to a tune that nobody can sing." By the way, according to ABC News pollsters, barely one in three American teens can name Key as its author.
(Answer: "through the perilous fight.")
After the "Nuestro Himno" flap, President Bush said the song should be sung in English. But David Goldstein of Knight Ridder Newspapers reported that the U.S. government gave its blessing to a Spanish translation in 1919. Besides Spanish, the Library of Congress has vintage translations in Polish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Armenian, among others. Versions in Samoan and Yiddish can be found on the Internet. Who knows how many more are out there? Here are parts of eight published versions Mr. Goldstein gathered. Just hum if you can't sing the words.
English: O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Armenian: Usek gurnak took ter desnel vagh aikoon
Mutunshaghin ain turoshn mer woghtchoonads
Yiddish: O zog! konstu zen in likht fun sof nakht,
Vos mir hobn bagrist in demer-shayn mit freyd?
Samoan: Aue! se'i e vaai, le malama o ataata mai
Na sisi a'e ma le mimita, i le sesega mai o le vaveao
Polish: Ach! czy widac tam, patrzaj w swit bracie moj,
Dumny znak nasz co lsnil wczora gdy gasly zorza?
German: O! sagt, koennt ihr seh'n, In des Morgenroths Strahl,
Was so stolz wir im scheidenden Abendroth gruessten?
French: O dites, voyez-vous, Dans la lumi?re du jour
Le drapeau qu'on saluait, ? la tombee de la nuit?
Spanish: Amanece, lo veis, a la luz de la aurora,
Lo que tanto aclamamos la noche al caer?
We are the world?
Actually, a variation of the above concoction exists. A New York-based group of musicians called Voices United For America has released a rendition using 10 languages, including Swedish, German, Bulgarian, Korean, Tagalog and Arabic, Wireless Flash news reports. The song is available at YourNationalAnthem.com. Each language gets part of a verse. The final one, "Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave..." is sung by everyone in English. There were translation problems. VUFA spokesman Michael Gilboe said, "The woman singing in Korean had to change the phrase, 'Land of the free' because, in her language, freedom applies to merchandise, not people."
Key moments in the recent history of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from infoplease.com/spot/starmangledbanner:
Jose Feliciano, Oct. 7, 1968
The Puerto Rican singer stunned the country when he strummed a slow, bluesy rendition before Game 5 of the World Series between Detroit and St. Louis. The 23-year-old's performance, which came in a tumultuous year, was the first nontraditional version presented to mainstream America. Good or bad, Feliciano opened the door for the countless interpretations of "The Star-Spangled Banner" we hear today.
Jimi Hendrix, Aug. 17, 1969
During the final set at Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix let loose with a rendition on electric guitar that's been called everything from the most important political rock statement of the 1960s to an afterthought in one of Hendrix's worst performances. Even today, music scholars can't agree on what message, if any, Hendrix's screaming guitar and ballistic feedback was trying to deliver. But 35 years later, John Popper of Blues Traveler performed the Hendrix version before President Bush at the 2005 Inaugural Ball. Nobody found it the least bit controversial.
Marvin Gaye, Feb. 13, 1983
Motown legend Marvin Gaye sang before the 1983 NBA All-Star Game in Inglewood, Calif. Accompanied by a drum machine, Gaye's interpretation added elements of soul and funk. Gaye, who also sang the anthem during the same World Series as Jose Feliciano, generated a lot of reaction, but the fallout didn't compare to Feliciano's rendition.
Roseanne Barr, July 25, 1990
Barr applied her own brand of humor to the national anthem before a baseball game in San Diego. After screeching through an off-key version, she added some cliched baseball humor by spitting and grabbing her crotch. The popular sitcom comedian immediately became public enemy No. 1. President George Bush called it "disgusting" and "a disgrace." The San Diego Union headline: "The Fat Lady Sings (Poorly)."
Aerosmith, May 27, 2001
Singing on Memorial Day before the Indianapolis 500, Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler angered veterans by changing the last line. Instead of "home of the brave," Tyler sang "home of the Indianapolis 500." He apologized the next day, saying: "I got in trouble my whole life for having a big mouth. I'm very proud to be an American and live in the home of the brave."
Robert Goulet, May 25, 1965
Although he was born in the United States, Robert Goulet moved to Canada when he was 14 and had never sung "The Star-Spangled Banner." Moments before the rematch of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in Maine, Goulet began, "Oh say, can you see, by the dawn's early night..." Must have been inspired by those shorter days in Canada.
Carl Lewis, Jan. 21, 1993
Nine-time Olympic track-and-field gold medalist Carl Lewis could carry a baton but not a tune. Before a Chicago Bulls--New Jersey Nets basketball game, Lewis rendered the musical equivalent of a train wreck. He faltered on "rockets red glare," then mid-song told the fans, "I'll make up for it." But it got no better, and when the TV camera panned to Michael Jordan, he was laughing hysterically.
Instrumental versions only?
Blogger Charles Kuffner, offthecuff.com:
"Almost every singer of the national anthem is a pop-singer wannabe who gives a breathy, wants-to-be-soulful version that just comes off as tacky. Now, I don't believe the only proper arrangement is based on John Philip Sousa's. It's still a piece of music, and that means it's valid for creative exploration. But "The Star Spangled Banner" isn't supposed to sound sexy. What bothers me most is that these singers sound like it's about them rather than the song. Every added pause, every trill and fermata, and especially the sky-high octave on 'land of the free,' often comes across to me as the performer's ego. This isn't 'American Idol,' dammit."
First Published May 26, 2006 12:00 am