Singing along to the national song

Posted: June 15, 2007

WASHINGTON - Say, can you sing the national anthem?

Nearly 5,000 students and teachers from across the United States joined in a mass sing-along yesterday in the shadow of the Washington Monument to demystify a notoriously difficult patriotic song.

The event was the culmination of a two-year, $3 million effort to "reteach" Americans to recall and sing the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" and to promote music education in the nation's schools.

Organizers billed it as a "campaign to restore America's voice," as they strive to erase thousands of painful images of fans on stadium JumboTrons clearly mouthing the wrong words to Francis Scott Key's composition.

Leaving nothing to chance, yesterday's participants on an overcast Flag Day in the nation's capital wore red shirts with the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner" emblazoned on the back.

"It's a world record!" shouted Kathryn Fischer, a student at Lower Moreland High School in Huntingdon Valley, shortly before the Oak Ridge Boys led the singing of the anthem.

Well, hardly, but it was sung in tune and the words seemed right.

Fischer was part of a group of 70 members of the high school symphonic band at Lower Moreland chosen to represent Pennsylvania at the grand finale.

Music coordinator Erin Stroup said the school raised $35,000 to cover travel costs for the band, which will perform today at the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall as part of the three-day wrap-up of the campaign.

The campaign to revitalize the national anthem was led by the National Association for Music Education, which commissioned a Harris poll that showed that two of every three Americans didn't know the words to the song.

Moreover, 38 percent of those polled didn't even know the official name of the anthem.

Oh, the star-mangled banter.

Public performances have not done the anthem proud, from Borat's intentional parody to the infamous malfeasance performed by Robert Goulet at the second Ali-Liston heavyweight championship fight, which prompted the singer to explain that he had moved to Canada when he was 14 years old.

Included among the more notable lyrical atrocities are such classics as "Jose, can you see," "Babe Ruth through the night," "Or the lamb of the free," and "The bombs burst in midair."

"This is what happens when you don't have good school music programs," said John Mahlman, executive director of the National Association for Music Education, based in Reston, Va.

The campaign, launched on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in March 2005 with Laura Bush as honorary chair, featured a yearlong, 62-city caravan tour.

Each stop at a school, community or sports event or civic locations provided educational videos, concerts, interactive games, a "petting zoo" of musical instruments, and contests to educate people about the national anthem and revive interest in school music programs.

"It's not a performance piece; you're supposed to sing along," said Mahlman, noting the increasing number of sports facilities that show the lyrics on giant video screens. "Some people got in the habit of watching and listening, and that's not what it's about."

Mahlman said the organizers hoped to do a follow-up poll to see if the campaign had the desired effect. "We don't want to let this go," he said. "Our real cause is music in the schools."

The tour stopped in Philadelphia at the Independence National Historical Park in September and in Camden in October.

Perhaps nothing topped the stop in Chicago, where 2-year-old twins sang the anthem a cappella without mistakes. Their mother said she used to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" to the twins at bedtime.

Mahlman admits that the anthem is a challenging song but said that "it would be way too complicated" to change to another patriotic song. The answer is better music education, he said.

"If fourth graders can sing it, then what's the problem here?" Mahlman said.


To view a video

of Flag Day ceremonies

in Philadelphia and access the National Anthem Project's Web site, go to http://go.philly.com/flagday2007


Contact staff writer Steve Goldstein

at 202-408-2758 or slgoldstein@phillynews.com.

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