(Author's note: This piece ran originally in early May of 2004, but save the mention of particular races in that time period, nothing much has changed)
As the title indicates, (I hope) this column has to do with “The Star Spangled Banner”, as it relates to NASCAR races. Over recent weeks, I’ve received a myriad of emails from fans concerned with the weekly presentations of our National Anthem at various NASCAR tracks. Almost to a man, these fans feel that most, though thankfully not all, of the presenters are at least disrespectful, if not downright insulting in their “interpretive” offerings of this most revered piece of American music.
I’ll point out right up front that the choice of entertainers is not made by NASCAR, but by the individual tracks. At every track, there is some PR person or entertainment coordinator that is responsible for presenting talent that reflects well upon the track, but obviously, some of them are failing miserably, unless the image they wish to present is one of hostility and disregard for America. In a sport that purports to be so openly patriotic and indeed has always been so, that is disgraceful to the nth degree.
With some of my colleagues and myself, it’s become almost a game as we watch and wait to see what travesty of our Anthem will be perpetrated upon the fans in any given week. Sadly, we are seldom disappointed, as week after week, we are subjected to “Stars” that seem incapable of presenting either the words or the tune or more often than not, both.
When we are speaking of the words and music that represent the very soul of our country, it’s not enough to present some well-known name and assume that everyone will be more than happy to hear whatever might escape his or her lips. As long as this piece of music remains our National Anthem, no matter how difficult it might be to perform, it should be delivered with respect, not scorn. Gyrations, vocal slides, improvisations and various types of moaning and groaning in torch song fashion are NOT acceptable.
The following are a few excerpts from previous "Lady in Black" columns, and reflect only the opinions of that writer. For comparison, I’ve included both good and bad reviews, but the final two span the spectrum.
Our National Anthem was delivered by Miss Rimes, (LeAnn) who might as well have yodeled it. Come on guys, you had Lee Greenwood right there! Who better to do a patriotic song?
When the festivities got underway, “The Star Spangled Banner” was presented in a wonderful and respectful way by Diamond Rio; six men singing barbershop harmony and doing it very well.
Las Vegas ~
“The Star Spangled Banner” was spoken, not sung (but for the last two bars) by a shadow of the once great Robert Goulet. I don’t believe that I’ve felt that sorry for anyone since Ol’ DW refused to retire when it was time.
The festivities got underway with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Chorus delivering a stirring rendition of our National Anthem that was pure joy to hear. Thanks Hotlanta, it would be nice if more tracks followed your lead.
The pre-parade festivities began with Kelly Coffey offering “The Star Spangled Banner”, with the accompaniment of the U. S. Army 82nd Airborne Chorus. The chorus was fine, as always, but Ms. Coffey, though the words were familiar, seemed to have written her own tune and it lacked a lot.
To get the festivities underway, a crowd of over 90,000 was treated to a presentation of our National Anthem by Buddy Jewell, whose crisp, clean version was very respectful and pleasing to the ear of this old fan. I knew that Martinsville would not disappoint us in that respect.
My notes tell me that Mark Wills was a “Dixieland Delight” there, though those notes never made it into print.
The afternoon’s festivities got underway with a so-so rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”, offered by a young lady with a very proper British (Australian?) accent named Haley Westenra. I’m told she is a Classical artist of some note, yet like so many others we hear, she is totally incapable of pronouncing the word, “perilous.” (The word is NOT pear-uh-liss) Okay, I’ll admit that is a pet peeve with me, but it’s only three syllables and shouldn’t be that difficult. Aside from that she did okay, though a bit too improvisational for my taste. Oh, and do you suppose they might have found an American to sing the National Anthem?
Sonoma ~ 2003 ~ (From the ridiculous)
A person named Joe Satriani stepped up to the microphone with a guitar in hand and proceeded to strangle that poor thing (Like a chicken) right there on the stage. What came out was something like the sound you'd get if you slammed the screen door on the cat's tail at the same time that you were scraping your fingernails down a blackboard. They told us that was “The Star Spangled Banner.” *sigh*
Pocono ~ July 2003 ~ (To the sublime)
Before the on-track festivities began, we were treated to an offering of the National Anthem by Lt. Kevin Pierce of the Racemania State Police. I was so moved by the crystal quality of this man’s voice that I plan to start a petition asking that he be made the “Official Anthem Singer of NASCAR.” He was certainly head and shoulders above 90% of what we are offered on a weekly basis. Thank you, Lieutenant Pierce. You made this old lady’s day a lot brighter.
As I said in the beginning, thank heavens they are not all bad, but this old gal fails to see the reason why even one of them should be bad. To the procurers of talent at every track, I have a simple suggestion. Audition! Do not accept someone’s resumé as a guarantee of a job well done, and don’t blithely assume that if the price tag is high enough that the product must be worth it. It’s just not so!
Some of these entertainers are no doubt just fine in their own element, which would more properly be the pop-rock concerts that have become a part of so many of our prerace festivities. Their place, however, is not center stage, purposefully destroying the words and tune of our country’s Anthem. If it can’t be done right, it’s better not being done.
NASCAR has always been the leading sport when it comes to good old-fashioned patriotism, and has worn that banner proudly since its inception. How ironic is it then, in a stadium full of flags and military presence, to hear some caterwauling wannabe distorting the strains of “The Star Spangled Banner?” Perhaps it’s time that NASCAR usurps the overseeing of the presentation, so that it might be done right. Today’s NASCAR is quite obviously aimed at the youth of America, and what better way to instruct our younger generations than to teach them respect for all things American. Many of the supposed “talents” that have been foisted upon the fans recently tend to make Roseanne Barr sound like Beverly Sills by comparison.
Now if I might, for the three of you that care, I’d like to offer a few words about the Anthem itself. “The Star Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key, in 1814, as he watched Old Glory flying over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore ( Sept. 13-14) in the War of 1812. By the way, we won the battle and eventually the war against the British.
Evidently, back in those days, there wasn’t a plethora of songwriters in America, and it was quite customary to set words to existing tunes. For this song, Key turned to a tune he’d already written one set of lyrics for, and applied the new poem to a ditty known in jolly old England as the “Anacreontic Song. (For the purists out there, I know there is another spelling of the word. I simply chose the one that is easiest to pronounce)
Okay, I heard the sighs all the way to Georgia. Just stick with me. The Anacreontic Society was a Men’s Club in London, taking its name from Anacreon, a Grecian lyric poet from the fifth century. It seems that Anacreon was a bit of a wino, and the Society really liked its wine, hence its name. The original words, as I understand it, were written by Ralph Tomlinson, but the tune was a collective effort of the entire society under the direction of a gentleman named John Stafford Smith.
What resulted was a textbook example of too many cooks spoiling the broth, as the thing spans vocal ranges that few people can reach and incorporates enough key changes to make good musicians weep. Just for fun, here are the words to the first verse (there are many), though I must admit to having difficulty applying them to the tune.
The Anacreontic Song
To Anacreon in Heaven
Where he sat in full glee
A few Sons of Harmony
Sent a petition that he
Their Inspirer and Patron would be;
When this answer arrived
From the jolly old Grecian:
“Voice, Fiddle and Flute,
No longer, be mute,
I’ll lend you my name
And inspire you to boot.
And besides, I’ll instruct you,
Like me to intwine [sic]
The Myrtle of Venus
With Bacchus’s Vine
Enough of Anacreon; let’s move on to “The Star Spangled Banner.” Though written in 1814, the song was not adopted as our National Anthem until 1931 when it replaced “America” (My Country ‘Tis of Thee) in that capacity. Although I think the words to America are more stirring, I’ve always wondered how a country that fought two bloody wars against England for independence ever came to adopt a National Anthem written to the tune of “God Save the Queen.”
So it is that for over seventy years, we’ve been saddled with an English tavern tune as our Anthem, which is almost impossible for the average Joe or Jane to sing. In this writer’s humble opinion, there are several songs more fitting and certainly more tuneful than what we have presently.
The oldest of those would be Katherine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful”, written in 1913. Next on the list would be Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which is certainly a worthy candidate for the honor. Last, but definitely not least is Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” Any of those wonderfully patriotic songs would beat the stuffing out of the one we have now, yet we cling for some unknown reason to our impossible tavern song.
Well, much to your delight I’m sure, I’ve about run out of words for today. Let me just say in closing, as long as “The Star Spangled Banner” remains our National Anthem, it deserves and should get, all of the proper respect that is due a symbol of America and Americans. It’s quite simple when you think about it. Let’s teach our children that it’s wrong to burn the flag and it’s wrong to trash the Anthem. Those simple things alone might go a long way toward solving a lot of the problems of today.