Have pop stars hijacked the Star-Spangled Banner?

"It takes a major catastrophe to bring people back to patriotism," says Ralph Mazza, chaplain at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 106 in West Chester. ABI REIMOLD / Staff
"It takes a major catastrophe to bring people back to patriotism," says Ralph Mazza, chaplain at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 106 in West Chester. ABI REIMOLD / Staff
Posted: July 05, 2012

To get an idea of whether "The Star-Spangled Banner" is universally sung — or for that matter, known — just log on to YouTube.

Boston Red Sox fans keep quiet until the national anthem's end, when they cheer. A group of youngsters at a Phillies game are asked if they know the words, and only a few raise their hands. Various checks of U.S. Olympic athlete footage show mostly lip-synching.

We all know Christina Aguilera doesn't know her national anthem, at least when she lost her lyrics in game 6 of the 2010 NBA playoffs.

What happened to our patriotism, our basic duty as American citizens to sing the anthem? Have pop stars hijacked the responsibility, and with it, the words?

Not quite, but it seems sincere patriotic expression — wholehearted, respectful singing — seems to wait for war. When a common enemy coalesces the U.S. citizenry, pride is unleashed, and people want to show it with song.

Following World War II, "Everybody took off their hats, they all joined in," said baseball living legend Yogi Berra of the fans in New York. After 9/11, too, people's vocal cords came alive, said Lauren Hart, the anthem singer for the Flyers since 1998.

"It takes a major catastrophe to bring people back to patriotism," said Ralph Mazza, the chaplain at VFW Lodge Post 106 in West Chester and a Vietnam War veteran.

"They forget."

That means that outside of these rally-round-the-flag moments, we often are left with gimmicks — Baltimore Orioles fans in the only form of audience participation belt out the "O" with the start of "Oh say does ..." Roseanne Barr mocks it with a near screaming rendition.

It's a situation brothers David and Mark Hildebrand hope to change with a documentary that will air this fall on Maryland's public broadcast station.

Using their own funds, $20,000 from Kickstarter, and corporate dollars, the film traces the Star-Spangled Banner's origins (from a four-stanza poem written in 1814 by lawyer Francis Scott Key), ), its journey from mere patriotic song to official national status (Herbert Hoover deemed it the nation's anthem in 1931), the role it plays in society, and how it's changed, said Mark Hildebrand, an independent filmmaker. His brother is a music historian and the director of the Colonial Music Institute in Severna Park, Md.

The documentary, filmed over three years, shows many people not singing.

In fact, at a minor league game, the audience is told not to. It happens at elementary schools, as well. Mark Hildebrand said he requested that school leaders ask the audience to sing the anthem, and he was told no. "We don't want to detract from the performer." Parents, he said, "will shush those around them."

The problem, said historian Ralph E. Eshelman, an adviser to the National Park Service and to the Hildebrands' documentary, is that most Americans don't know the facts upon which the anthem is based. Without context, they don't understand the historical value. Without the history, there's really no heartfelt pride.

"I don't think [Orioles fans] are trying to be disrespectful, they are ignorant of their history … and that's kind of sad," he said.

When Key wrote the anthem, setting the words to the melody called The Anacreontic Song, the U.S. was a country still wobbly at the knees. Its leaders were divided over picking a war with Great Britain, which belittled the young country by restricting trade and otherwise letting it feel the empire's significant might.

Before the war, Eshelman said, a person didn't say he was an American; he referred to himself by one of the 18 states in which he lived. "That's because people didn't have confidence in the country as lasting."

The War of 1812 went on about three years, but it was during the last few months — the battles at Fort McHenry and at Lake Champlain — when American troops proved their military abilities.

"At this point, it was the turning tide for negotiation," said Eshelman. Militarily, the war was a draw — no one gained, no one lost. But what the citizens got was invaluable: a sense of nationality, confidence, and knowledge that it could hold its own against England.

Also from that war came a plethora of patriotic songs, said David Hildebrand, an important way to communicate significant events during those times. And the main reason why people set words to established melodies — there are 200 known versions of Yankee Doodle Dandy — was to get the point across. In those days, news was disseminated where people gathered.

Today, said David Hildebrand, music doesn't play the same role as in times past. Although there's a wealth of political rock songs from the ‘60s — Crosby Stills Nash and Young's "Ohio," Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" -- the musical response after 9/11 "was pretty darn weak," he said.

As for the Star Spangled Banner, it started on the road to anthem status in the late 1800s, when the Navy adopted it as its flag-raising tune. Then, the band of the March King, John Philip Sousa, began playing it regularly on tour. Sousa supported its adoption as the country's anthem.

Fans of professional baseball first started singing the anthem in 1918. Legend has it that fans attending a ballgame in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn stood and sung the Star-Spangled Banner — spontaneously — after reading a message on the scoreboard that Gen. "Blackjack" Pershing and his soldiers had a won a battle against the Germans.

What started as extemporaneous has become polished and professionalized. And when Beyoncé is on the field, it becomes even harder for a normal human to hit that one-and-a-half octave range.

But having someone perform the anthem hasn't always been the case.

For big games, Berra remembers the stadium always hosting singer Lucy Monroe.

"She was almost part of the tradition," Berra said. "She had a great voice but always asked everyone to sing along with her."

And Hart has always done it like her dad, the Flyers' much-beloved announcer Gene Hart, told her to. "Sing it straight," he said. "It's not about you."

(Actually, not everyone looks to a professional singer at anthem time. In Canada, no one leads the fans. Check out the YouTube's 2010 Olympic Gold Medal ceremony in Vancouver. The hockey fans are delightfully off-key.)

The person who really should be leading the anthem, said Tony Giorno, a veteran and member of VFW Post 106, is someone who represents the military.

"They are in a position of military responsibility for the country. They are not pop stars. [Singing the anthem] is just tchotchke for them."

Veteran John O'Neal comes from a long line of Army men — 13 ancestors preceded him. He said if he is in an audience and sees people whose hands aren't at their chest while the anthem is being played, he tells them, "Hands to hearts, please." They respond, he said.

"I won't tolerate it."

Yet, there is some evidence that children coming of age in the years following 9/11 know the anthem and what it's about.

Ben Mitchell, 11, of West Chester, learned it when he attended Calvary Lutheran Preschool. In all his years since, while attending Catholic elementary school at St. Agnes, and later at Fern Hill Elementary, he has regularly sung the Star-Spangled Banner.

His fifth-grade teacher was especially strict about participation. "If [students] didn't sing it they had to … sing it by themselves [afterward]." Two were guilty during the year.

While he doesn't understand exactly what the words mean, he knows it's a big deal.

"It represents our nation."

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