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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138 comments

Emily B.
Emily B.2 years ago

I've just had a look at "The Star Spangled Banner" as published in 1816, only two years after the poem was written, and seeming a parody of an English drinking song. It is very different in places, so it looks as if people have been singing it incorrectly for almost two hundred years. Are we to believe that they were all lacking in respect? And should everyone have to re-learn it?

Steve A.
Steve A.2 years ago

Lights blue touchpaper and retires!

Steve A.
Steve A.2 years ago

I agree. There should be no variation to the traditional way of playing/singing a national anthem.

Nor should there be any variation in accent or language. It's time we brought in laws so that people aren't upset by the way people speak.

Why should any one have to put up with listening to a Texas accent? Or a Cockney, Irish, or god help us, a Croat who learned English in Wales!

Legislate for equality now!

And it's obvious that you should all speak like me.

After all, I'm right.

Robertajo Trask
Robertajo Trask2 years ago

I believe that there has been way too many liberties taken by preformers singing the National Anthem. They get worse and worse, more "showy" and disrespectful as time goes by. That being said, I think a small amount of leeway isn't a bad thing - to accommodate a singers ability, seeing as it is a hard song to sing. The song has it's own unique arrangement of notes, which by definition is what makes a song a song. People have no right to change that at their own descretion. It's disrespectful to our anthem. It's disrespecful to the writer, who won his place in history by writing those notes in That order. It's disrespectful to the country, by presuming you have the right to change it. I think modern preformers need to be curbed. They're more concerned with showing off and being "hip" than they are with the honor of preforming our Antional Anthem.

Emily B.
Emily B.2 years ago

As a professional singer residing in Europe, I have to admit that I was forced to suppress a smile at the story about trying to regulate the way in which "The Star-spangled banner" is performed. As any music-school girl knows, songs in the eighteenth century were NEVER performed exactly as they were written: singers embellished the melody by filling in the intervals, and by adding mordant, leading notes, cadences and such like. Exactly in the way that Miss Warfield-Cross did. As to singing it in the "traditional way" - this must be offensive to our Black brothers and sisters, who were not exactly a part of the "Land of the Free" when the song was composed. Could it be that her style of singing, sounding "Black", has caused critiques which arise from racism? And by the way, my own National Anthem ("God Save the Queen") is not performed today in the style in which it was first written, not even by members of the Royal Family.

John Ditchman
John Ditchman2 years ago

It is comforting to know that there are no pressing issues facing our federal and state governments, so that they have time to address the dangerous trend of artists trying to turn our national war anthem into art! While the rest of us are facing cutbacks to vital services because there is no money for them, will the new Anthem Police be given an unlimited budget to enforce these idiotic laws? When the national anthem plays when we are watching TV, will jack-booted thugs of the Anthem Police ram down our doors to be sure we are standing at attention? Legislators at any level who propose such idiocy should be subject to immediate recall elections.

Sylvia M.
Sylvia M.2 years ago

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.

Ha. So, show-offiness (yes-it's a word in my "free" universe) and "in poor taste" is to be met
"in poor taste" ridiculous legislation.

Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/is-there-a-right-way-to-sing-the-star-spangled-banner.html#ixzz2LGrXZDXZ

Carol K.
Carol K.2 years ago

(continued)
...And how can a free country impose a mandatory loyalty pledge? Isn't the whole point of America that we are free to think as we choose? That we are not forced to chant pro-government slogans in the streets, as was common in, for example, Nazi Germany? The Pledge of Allegiance (especially its "under God" addition from the post-WWII "Red Scare" era) stands in direct opposition to the concept of a free country. The Pledge should be recited only by those who choose to do it of their own free will.

And how does a free country justify making it illegal for citizens to express their views by burning a flag? It saddens me to see a flag burned, and I don't consider it a very effective means of protest. But the principles are clear, and we must defend the right of American citizens to burn it as an act of civil disobedience -- one of the most precious freedoms the flag stands for. We MUST be allowed to burn the flag (under conditions otherwise legal for burning), or it no longer holds meaning as a symbol of freedom.

So... no, aside from requiring adherence to the correct lyrics, we must not regulate the performance styles of those singing the National Anthem at public events. We can only hope that performers will show good taste in their choices.

Carol K.
Carol K.2 years ago

I'm tired of hearing people show off their vocal gymnastics on the Anthem, too -- but the day we start outlawing that is the day we cease to be America.

This is a nation built on the rights and freedoms of individual citizens. We are allowed to speak, to write, to vote as we choose (when the Republicans don't tamper with our elections), and we're justly proud that we've established those freedoms. To consider rescinding or limiting any of those freedoms should be a matter of deep, soul-searching debate -- not a whim of the narrow-minded.

Even when some musical diva uses the anthem more as a talent show than an expression of love for our country, who is really harmed? And when a rock star changes the last word of the Anthem in a misguided attempt to honor the event at which he sang it, how does that really hurt anyone? I don't like it, I mildly resent it... but no actual harm is done to me.

My argument here is similar to the argument against the forced recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, or the legislative push for a flag-burning amendment: our respect for all these symbols of patriotism is meaningful ONLY IF GIVEN FREELY.

And how can a free country impose a mandatory loyalty pledge? Isn't the whole point of America that we are free to think as we choose? That we are not forced to chant pro-government slogans in the streets, as was common in, for example, Nazi Germany? The Pledge of Allegiance (especially its "under God" addition from the post-WWII

Angelique Cunningham

What happened to freedom of expression?