Is There a Right Way to Sing “The Star-Spangled Banner”?
Concerned that some performers are taking too many liberties in performing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Indiana Senator Vaneta Becker (R.) has proposed a bill to specify “performance standards” for singing and playing the US national anthem in any public school and state university events, and at at any private institutions that are funded by state scholarship funds, including vouchers.
Under the proposal law, performers would have to sign a contract agreeing to the proposed guidelines and could be fined $25 if they do not follow them. In addition, schools must keep an audio archive of all performances for two years and create a procedure for complaints, should a musician be thought not to have followed the guidelines.
Senator Becker Justifies Her Bill
Becker says she decided to propose the bill after a constituent told her about being upset on hearing a parody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that was “disrespectful.” She noted that it should be relatively easy to record performances using a cell phone or other such technology.
The point of her bill, says Becker, is “to punish only those who make intentional changes — not those who can’t carry a tune.” At least three other states, Florida, Massachusetts and Michigan have laws regarding the behavior of those listening to the song or regulating its performance, says the Indianapolis Star:
Massachusetts and Michigan both prohibit using “The Star-Spangled Banner” as dance music, an exit march or as part of a musical medley. Both states also ban adding “embellishment or addition in the way of national or other melodies.” The law covers all public places, as well as theaters, movie theaters, restaurants and cafes….
The Michigan law was created in 1931, the same year that “That Star-Spangled Banner” became the US national anthem; those who violate it can be charged with a misdemeanor. Federal law also has policies for how people should conduct themselves while the song is bring performed:
People in the audience are to face the flag and place their right hand over their heart. Those wearing hats are to remove them and hold them over their hearts. If no flag is present, the audience is supposed to face the singer.
The melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is itself based on “The Anacreontic Song,” the official song of a popular 18th century “gentleman’s club” of amateur musicians in London (Anacreon was an ancient Greek lyric poet whose poetry often makes reference to wine, women and carousing).
The Questions of Tradition
In the Indianapolis Star, Henry H. Leck, director of choral activities at Butler University and the founder and artistic director of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir, notes that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is “‘extremely difficult to sing’” because it spans an octave and a half. Leck also says that he is “not a fan of the growing trend of singers ‘trying to make it unique’ through improvisations and embellishments.”
Raw Story cites an incident last year in which an Indiana school district told 16-year-old Shai Warfield-Cross, who is African-American, to sing the anthem in a “traditional way” after receiving complaints about her performance. Warfield-Cross had performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” without incident at her own high school in Bloomington but residents of Martinsville, described as a “predominantly white community about 30 miles southwest of Indianapolis,” complained that her “rendition was disrespectful to current and former members of the military.” Warfield-Cross performed the anthem according to those guidelines but, as her aunt, Aurora Marin said, her niece’s “‘rights of expression and individuality’” had been suppressed. You can hear Warfield-Cross singing in this video:
Indiana University history professor Khalil Muhammad, after hearing Warfield-Cross’s original version said that he found it a “‘fairly traditional rendition’” and cited many artists, including Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix (whose version is below), who have adapted the song, while still leaving it recognizable.
Hendrix and Gaye were not performing at high school athletic events and Hendrix’s is instrumental; some of the power of his version comes from the fact that he has extensively altered “The Star-Spangled Banner,” yet it is clearly still the same song. Does the US need to police and regulate the performance of its national anthem or should we not accept and even encourage different versions that are “traditional” and less so, as a testament to pluralism and diversity — or is Becker’s bill yet another sign that these are less and less valued in the US?
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Photo by The U.S. Army