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Celebrate 150 Years of Taps

The Star Spangled Banner adoption as our national anthem

Fort McHenry Flag

March 3rd marks the anniversary of “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 911. Numerous performances and recordings of the anthem has lead 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 composition captured the spirit of the country. During the Civil War it was used as a national air along with “Hail Columbia”, “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.

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) composed the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sept. 14, 1814, after witnessing the massive overnight British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, a key assault during the War of 1812. Key, a lawyer, watched the siege while being detained aboard ship by British sailors. He penned the words after observing, with shock and awe, that the flag – with its 15 stars and 15 stripes – had survived the nearly 1,800-bomb assault.

A Baltimore newspaper published the patriotic lyrics, which had circulated as a handbill, a week after the bombardment. Key’s words were later set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular English song written by John Stafford Smith. Throughout the 19th century, most branches of the U.S. armed forces and other groups regarded “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. (The Navy recognized it for official use in 1889.)

But it took until 1916 for President Woodrow Wilson to sign an executive order formally designating the anthem’s status. All that remained was for Congress to pass an act confirming Wilson’s order and for Hoover to sign it.

“The Star Spangled Banner” had a strong supporter in John Philip Sousa who, in 1931, opined that besides Key’s “soul-stirring” words, “it is the spirit of the music that inspires.”

On March 3, President Herbert C. Hoover signed the Act establishing Key’s poem and Smith’s music as the official anthem of the United States

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 include: Igor Stravinsky’s 1941 version for orchestra and male chorus, Duke Ellington’s 1948 Cornell University arrangement, Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 electric guitar version, José Feliciano’s 1968 rendition, and the 1991 version by the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin.

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 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. Igor Stravinsky’s orchestration caused such a sensation in Boston that the police confiscated the parts and arrested Stravinsky for “tampering with public property.” He was charged with changing the traditional harmonies. His mug shot is in the files of the Boston police. In 1942 a National Anthem committee outlined some performance practices to be observed. These were no doubt in reaction to the Stravinsky uproar in Boston. 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”

Here is a link to that the 1942 Code for the performance of the anthem: 1942 CODE

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. Click Here for that Regulation

Here is the US Marine Band performing the anthem as stated in protocol.

At the 2014 Superbowl, Opera singer Renee Fleming performed it with the NJ Symphony and chorus of military singers.

One of the things that irk me is that while there is protocol for those listening to the anthem, there is none for those 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.

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One Response to “The Star Spangled Banner adoption as our national anthem”

  1. Terry Barbre says:

    My major gripe is the proliferation of fake digital bugles at military funerals. I am a former Army Band Commander but currently I am a public school band teacher who also plays bagpipes at many military funerals. I have witnessed several “bugle malfunctions” in the last few years. Even when they work correctly, I hate the artificial tone that comes out of those things. I have specified in my will that a real live bugle player is to play Taps at my funeral.

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