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Celebrate 150 Years of Taps

The Star Mangled Banner

Fergie’s recent performance of our national anthem at the 2018 NBA All-Star game got me thinking about the performance protocol. It is interesting to note that on March 3rd we will commemorate the “The Star-Spangled Banner’s” adoption as our national anthem, thanks in large part to John Charles Linthicum, a Maryland congressman who spent 12 years working to convince members of Congress to enact legislation.

The Star-Spangled Banner” has been the topic of performance interpretation since it has came back into the public consciousness after 9-11. Numerous performances and recordings of the anthem has led one to ask if there is United States code for the performance of the song. As we all know, the anthem was a poem written by Francis Scott Key during the failed attack on Fort McHenry in September 1814 and was set to the tune “Anacreon in Heav’n.”  The tune of “Anacreon in Heav’n” was written by John Stafford Smith as the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians in London. The stories that the song was born in British pubs is just plain wrong.

The poem set to the musical composition captured the spirit of the country. During the Civil War it was used as a national air along with “Hail Columbia”, “Red, White and Blue” or “Columbia, The Gem of The Ocean” and “Yankee Doodle.” In 1889 the secretary of the Navy designated “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag. Around this time John Philip Sousa (the American composer and bandmaster) arranged the tune in a collection of world national anthems and airs to be used at official government functions. Although there is an indication that Sousa favored “Hail Columbia” as our national anthem he became a strong supporter of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and lived long enough to see it become our official national anthem in 1931.

The US Code 36, section 301 spells out regulations for the anthem and covers conduct during the playing. The code, however, did not specify an official text or musical arrangement, but left room for creative arrangements and interpretations. Therein lies the situation with performances today. Since there is no real code the anthem has been open to stylistic versions. These should be defined by the limits of custom and good taste but certainly some have pushed the envelope.

The standard instrumental version was unofficially established as the arrangement used by the U.S. service bands. However, other versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” include: Sousa’s traditional setting for band and his version in the style in the manner of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, Igor Stravinsky’s 1941 version for orchestra and male chorus, Duke Ellington’s 1948 Cornell University arrangement, Arthur Luck’s standard setting for Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement in the 1940s, the 1991 version by the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, and John William’s arrangement written for the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Burt Prelutsky, in his article The Star-Mangled Banner written in July 2005, writes: “…over the years, singers ranging from Kate Smith to Richard Tucker have been able to do it justice, merely by singing it simply and sincerely.  But at some point during the past ten years or so, certain female singers have decided that the only way to perform it was as if they were auditioning to provide orgasms for a porno soundtrack. Maybe I’m being too harsh.  Perhaps these song birds don’t intend any disrespect to the anthem.  Perhaps they simply don’t understand that patriotism means loving your country, not having sex with it.”

The performances in the past few decades years have ranged from the José Feliciano 1968 rendition, Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 electric guitar version at Woodstock, the Marvin Gaye interpretation at a 1983 NBA all-Star game, the Christian version by Sandy Patti (July 4, 1986), the “Hollywood” version by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl to the interpretation by Roseanne Barr in July 1990. There are many others but the controversy of interpreting the anthem dates back to the 1940s.

In 1942 a National Anthem committee outlined some performance practices to be observed. It states, “It is inappropriate to make or use sophisticated “concert” versions of the National Anthem.” It also suggested the harmonic, tempo, rhythmic values and key. This version can be found in many community songbooks and hymnals as the “service version” of the “The Star-Spangled Banner”

You can download a pdf of the Code for the US Anthem 1942 HERE

In 1944 Igor Stravinsky’s orchestration of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” caused such a sensation in Boston that the police confiscated the parts and arrested Stravinsky for “tampering with public property.” There is a story that Stravinsky was charged with changing the traditional harmonies and had a mug shot taken by the Boston police. The story is false. Although the police banned the performance he was not arrested. The “mug shot” is actually part of  Stravinsky’s 1940 visa application for residence in the United States

Philip Kennicott Washington Post Staff Writer in his article “Changing Our Tune” wrote: “In 1971, a House joint resolution was introduced to bring some standardization to the anthem, setting down the words, the music and the harmonies, giving recommendations as to the best keys for singing (G, A-flat or A), and some vague guidelines about how “strange and bizarre harmonization should be certainly avoided.” It did allow, however, for considerable discretion (“ . . . it is recognized that reasonable latitude must be allowed” and “the purpose of the performance and the available instruments will sometimes suggest different contrapuntal realizations of the basic harmonies.”) That resolution never became law, and in general, musical groups rely on versions of the anthem so old that in many cases no one is quite sure about their provenance. Tradition, and taste, are the primary guidelines. Therein lies the problem. Are national symbols open to interpretation? And if so, where is the line between interpretation and desecration? The debate is familiar when the symbol is the flag — With the national anthem, the situation is a bit messier. It’s clear that, say, screeching it as Roseanne Barr once did, and then holding your crotch, crosses some kind of threshold.”

Kennicott continues: “But there’s been considerable latitude for rethinking it musically, especially in popular contexts. The solo, R&B-inflected style, heard at innumerable ballgames, has become so filled with extraneous ornamentation, elision, slides and other egregious foofaraw, that one can hardly find the anthem through the trees. Some states have laws governing how it is performed. In Michigan, for instance, a 1931 law made it illegal to perform the anthem “except as an entire and separate composition or number and without embellishments of national or other melodies,” which, technically, makes it illegal to perform Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which uses a portion of the anthem as a tag line.”

The Department of Defense, in its Instructions number 1005.4 dated September 18, 1981 specifies the US Navy Band arrangement of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the official version to be used by all service bands on appropriate occasions. Interestingly enough, some of the premier military bands in Washington use their own versions of the anthem.

One of the things that irk me is that while there is protocol for those listening to the anthem, there is little for those performing it. The 1942 code states for bands and orchestras to stand “when convenient.” The 36 U.S. Code § 301 – National anthem today does not state what musicians should do when performing it. One only need to look through Youtube to find bands, both civilian AND military that do not stand while performing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I was told by one military bandsman “we don’t stand when in a concert setting.” I replied that I had been to ceremonies when veterans in wheelchairs struggled to get to their feet and that healthy military bandsmen should have no excuse. Since there is no official DoD Military directive for Military bands to stand when they play the anthem they will continue to sit. Shame on them-that’s right-Shame on them

So the bottom line is that tradition, custom and good taste should be observed when making arrangements for any performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Having listened to countless versions of the anthem it easy to understand that our country, diverse as it is, would have so many interpretations of the song.

Leave a Reply

One Response to “The Star Mangled Banner”

  1. David Throop says:

    Just saying,

    I think we missed a great unifying opportunity for the country during the NFL kneeling spasm. A preamble announcement should have been made to the effect that our civil war had resulted is the abolishment of slavery and everyone is free to stand for our national anthem. Then present Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 electric guitar version from Woodstock.

    See sad to see our country in such discord, but this is the process of liberty.

    I really look forward to the “Taps Bugler”

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