Saturday, March 04, 2017

Oh say can you STOP?!

Spring training has begun.   Play ball!

I spent years calling baseball games. That meant that every night I was treated to a different version of the National Anthem. I think I speak for the hundreds of millions of Americans who attend sporting events each year when I say to the performers…

The National Anthem is not a five-minute blues number.

It is not a Mariah Carey overwrought teen power ballad complete with runs and riffs and “yeahs” inserted in the middle. Whitney did it. You will never top it. Don’t try.

The National Anthem is not a song that needs a “hook”. Or your own “personal signature”.

It is not a sultry torch song. Do not use it to impress the chicks. The Star Spangled Banner is not catnip for horny women.

It is not opera. If you need to wear a Viking helmet to get in the mood, rethink.

Nor is it the Grand Ole Opry. Does Yankee Stadium look like a barn dance to you?

Yo! The National Anthem is also not a hip-hop jam. Do not sample “Happy Together” in the middle of it. Do not shout out “Clap your hands, y’all!” when you’re near the end.

It is not meant to be whistled, beat boxed, played on spoons, washboards, ukuleles, kazoos, or sung in Klingon.

The Rat Pack is dead. So should be all versions of the Star Spangled Banner that swing. Francis Scott Key did not envision finger popping and nowhere is the word “kookoo” in the lyrics.

And speaking of the lyrics – LEARN THEM. It’s “perilous fight” not “perilous night”, not “perilous flight”, not “perilous twilights bursting in air”.

The song has an actual melody. Just come close to it…even occasionally. That’s all I ask.

And finally, stop Stop STOP STOP trying to hold the last few notes forever. You’re not stirring. You’re a car alarm that won’t turn off.

The National Anthem is arguably one of the hardest songs to perform. But done well it’s also one of the most powerful. Just sing the friggin’ song.

And let us get on to “play ball!”.

46 comments :

slgc said...

Thank you for saying what so many of us have thought for so many years!

CRL said...

I blame Bleeding Gums Murphy.

Boomska316 said...

You remind me of Roy complaining about this in the episode, "Blackout Biggins." :) I just checked to see if you wrote it, but it was David Angell at least according to IMDB.

Jeff Alexander, Stuart, Florida said...

Mr. Levine:
Being an alto saxophonist in a high school band, we had to learn to play the National Anthem for the start of every home football game. Not an easy song for a high schooler to finger on a sax, at least for me. As a result, the National Anthem is not one of my favorite songs.
Have you heard Jose Feliciano's version from the 1968 World Series? It's on YouTube. I'd be curious in your opinion.

Anonymous said...

Listen to Lady Gaga (of all people!) do it right at the 2016 Super Bowl. A lot of her show may be overcooked, but her pure and straight version is the paradigm of how to do it. Colin Kaepernick probably stood up and applauded.

-30-

MIKE BOTULA said...

Way back in the previous century! In the '70s, I spent many a night at Anaheim Stadium watching the company baseball team play. One of my perks for working at KMPC. I heard a lot of "Star Spangled Banners yet wave" on the south side of the Orange Curtain. But, the rendition that stands out in my mind is the one intoned by none other than Orson Welles. He trundled out to home plate, took the microphone and RECITED the words to the Star Spangled Banner in that sonorous, ballsy voice that was his trademark. By the time he got to "the land of the free and the home of the brave," you could have heard a pin drop in that stadium. I rank Welles recitation as one of the best performances of the national anthem that I have ever heard.

ELS said...

The National Anthem is sung to highlight and celebrate the U.S.A. - not the singer. It is not the venue to highlight the singer.

I've seen man splendid renditions - most often military choirs who sing it with precision and class. I think the best individual performance I ever saw was Meat Loaf for an All Star game back in the early 90s or late 80s maybe. Straight, clean, and he's got a nice voice.

And the worst I ever saw was Roseanne. I swear, had I been there, I'd have stormed the field. I'm kinda disappointed that those who were there DIDN'T do something.

VincentS said...

And when you are given the honor to sing the National Anthem at a major sporting event PLEASE DRESS APPROPRIATELY! Not like you're from the 'hood with a lopsided cap and the crotch of your jeans scraping the grass or a slut. Sadly, though, it's the leagues who allow this to make their games more "hip." But it dishonors everyone whom has ever, like you Ken, worn the uniform to fight and/or die defending this country.

Chet S said...

Absolutely agree, sing it as close to written as you can or don't sing it. I hate what some artists do to the Anthem

Brent said...

Yes to this. A thousand times yes. You don't have to be Robert Merrill, but for the love of whatever-deity-you-prefer do it without all the frou-frou.

Lone exception - Jimi Hendrix. But since he's no longer with us, you don't get to try and channel your "inner Jimi". He was one of a kind, there is no substitute.

VP81955 said...

Or even better, simply play Ray Charles' version of "America the Beautiful" -- to my mind, the real national anthem.

kent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gottacook said...

In my opinion, all of the reasons for complaining about one rendition or another of "The Star-Spangled Banner" boil down to its octave-and-a-fifth range. The late music professor Caldwell Titcomb* used to campaign for "America the Beautiful" as its replacement (newspaper opinion pieces, etc.) and he was right; too bad no one listened.

One of Robert Klein's first two LPs - I think it was the second one, Mind Over Matter from 1974-75 - includes a track with similar amusing complaints and brief renditions of (for example) Jose Feliciano's take on the anthem.

*His real name; I had a class with him once.

Mike Doran said...

Here in Chicago, a most sporting events, the National Anthem is sung by a professional baritone named Wayne Messmer.
The melody (from an old English saloon song called "To Anacreon In Heaven") is so wide-ranged that only a professionally trained singer can hope to cover it.
Wayne Messmer (often joined by his equally talented wife) has capably handled that range for 30+ years.
Of course, New York City had Robert Merrill for all those years, which is sort of the point - get someone who's up to the job.

blinky said...

Jose Feliciano's version is the one for me, except when I am on flying high on LSD while sitting in the mud in a field with a few hundred thousand of my best friends. At times like that it is Jimi Hendrix, bigly.

Kosmo13 said...

I attended a Yankees game once where Peter Lemongello performed the national anthem. Many in the audience booed him before he started singing, but he ended up doing a nice job.

VP81955 said...

Feliciano was invited to sing the anthem by longtime Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, who wrote a number of songs during his life.

Jeff Randall said...

I will never forget - as the PA announcer for the Tacoma Rainiers, Seattle's AAA club - the time a young lady was to sing both the Canadian and US national anthem. When asked if she needed lyric sheets, she said no. About halfway through O Canada it was clear she had lost her place and had no idea how to get to the end...we were doubled over laughing and crying in the press box. What seemed like 5 minutes later she somehow ended and moved on to the US anthem.
The kicker was when I looked down at the Tacoma players lined up in front of the dugout and saw one with his shoulders slumped just slowly shaking his head - he was Canadian!
15 years of announcing anthem singers and the show was endless, just as Ken said!!
JR

Big B's Random Blog said...

The Branford Marsalis/Bruce Hornsby version on the Ken Burns Baseball soundtrack is one of the best there is. In under two minutes.

SBell in San Mateo said...

The original song, "To Anacreon to Heaven," was the official song of the Anacreontic Society of London. As a popular tavern song in America, it was (and probably still is) best performed by an inebriated band of amateur musicians while hoisting a pint or two.

Andrew Krigel said...

Agreed. Thank you. It is a terrible sing anyway. Sing it as written, sit down, and shut up.

Anthony Hoffman said...

It's always a terrible fucking song, especially compared to other countries.

Bill Avena said...

There was a PBS play called "The Bleacher Bums" which I think had the funniest, most accurate reproduction of the National Anthem as it's heard in the crowd.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Does anybody know why sporting events have to begin with anthems? When did this begin? I'll bet it was during a war. Do other countries do this? Every year there are proposals to speed up baseball games (I think they want to skip the four pitches that make an intentional walk this season). Why not eliminate the music, including "God Bless America" during the seventh inning, a song that makes my skin crawl?

Dayhew said...

Zooey Deschanel sang it in 2 consecutive World Series a few years ago. Absolutely the best rendition ever. Traditional, with a slight flair of her own the was simply beautiful.

Curt Alliaume said...

Buttermilk Sky led into my comment, which may be a Friday Question. What do you think of "God Bless America" during the 7th-inning stretch? I don't despise the song, but I dislike using it there - it's basically a second National Anthem, and defeats the purpose of the stretch (which is to move around and get the blood flowing - not possible when you're standing still). Yankee Stadium employees used to prevent people from leaving their seats when it was played (until they ejected someone for trying to use the restroom and the New York Civil Liberties Union sued and won). I don't particularly care if the actual song "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is used (the Orioles use "Thank God I'm a Country Boy"); I just don't feel as if bringing the proceedings to a halt to confirm our patriotism a second time is necessary (and extends the game time, which MLB doesn't seem to want). Thoughts?

ScarletNumber said...

Umm, did you forget you co-wrote Dancin' Homer?

Elf said...

Worst I was ever in attendance for: 1988 NLCS Game 6 at Dodger Stadium performed by Kenny G on the sax. We believe, that in the middle of all of his flourishes, the actual anthem was in there somewhere, but was only vaguely recognizable as such. The crown went mild, then booed.

Though I wonder as well why we still need it played before every game? Is someone afraid we'll forget what country we're in?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I see absolutely no reason why the national anthem should be sung at all. Other countries can get through sporting events without needing to reassure themselves about their national origins.

wg

ODJennings said...

The Gold Standard is still the Grateful Dead doing it in Candlestick Park:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MH8ObibNCoo

Peter said...

Go, Dancin Homer! Get up, man!

Lively up yourself, Dancin Homer.

DwWashburn said...

Buttermilk Sky -- You are correct that the anthem was started during a time of war. According to the Ken Burns Baseball documentary, a band played The Star Spangled Banner during the seventh inning stretch of one of the World Series games during the first World War. It was so well received that it became a tradition during the war and stuck. And this was more than a decade before the Banner became the official national anthem.

suek2001 said...

Funny and true..Ken but for my money, the current line up of the folk group The Kingston Trio did it to perfection for a SF Giants playoff game a few years ago. The Giants went on to win the Series. I would post a link to it here but not sure how you feel about links...
So I will say: You Tube "Kingston Trio National Anthem"...

SharoneRosen said...

AMEN brother Ken!

I've sung it once for the Dodgers, twice for the Angels and once for the L.A. Kings... right lyrics, proper notes... no muss no fuss

Jeff said...

The national anthem also does not need an extra high note on the "land of the free" line.

Pat Reeder said...

My wife Laura is a jazz singer, with a trained voice and perfect pitch, and she grew up with a dad who was vocal group jingle session leader for PAMS, CRC and TM in Dallas. So all of today's caterwauling, over-sung, off-pitch power ballads and pseudo-gospel affectations are physically painful to her ears. But the worst is when they're applied to the National Anthem. I think these singers must be trying to insure everyone stands up by making them run for the exits.

PS - We both really enjoyed the podcast where you saluted radio jingles. Many of those great singers were friends of my wife's parents and like aunts and uncles to her. She can listen to their harmonies and as perfectly blended as they are, often pick out the individual voices and tell me who they are.

Cap'n Bob said...

Let us not forget that Francis Scott Key didn't write a song, he wrote a poem. The music came much later.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

The other Big issue with the StarSpangledBanner is that very few have actually been taught what the words mean.

Do people really what O'er means or that there are a whole bunch of question marks that tell the story.
As a class assignment I was forced to learn what each line means. I recommend doing it

Anonymous said...

Never heard the "Dead" sing better....

Greg Ehrbar said...

Rick Moranis impersonated Mel Torme singing the national anthem on a classic SCTV episode.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ye7s4ybA7h4&t=6s

One of the things Torme specialized in was musical medleys for his own appearances and other stars. This is a very sharp spoof of how he and other singers would grab a word or a note from one song and slide it into another, sometimes incongruously.

J Lee said...

File this under 21st Century problems -- I went to the local Little League's season opening ceremony over the weekend, during which they decided, instead of using a CD or mp3 of the anthem, they could just stream it on someone's phone over YouTube.

So they found a version that was not too long and had no added instrumentation, and played it over the field's PA system ... but forgot to put the phone into airplane mode. And whoever was calling was persistent enough to call back before the anthem was over.

thirteen said...

They started doing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium after 9/11. There was a "Spared in the Attacks!" singing cop involved, too.

Betty said...

YES YES YES!

And I must agree with @ELS above that Meat Loaf did a fantastic job at the All-Star game in Pittsburgh (it was 1994 btw). It was the first time in my life I ever heard the musicality of the song.

Matt said...

I saw Hoyt Axton forget the words at a Raider game in the 89s. I think he was drunk.

However, unless it is a international game, lets just cease the false patriotism and stop singing it.

Andrew said...

I'm genuinely stunned no one has mentioned the best performance ever, from The Naked Gun.

"And the rocket's red glare, lots of bombs in the air, gave proof through the night, that we still had our flag. Oh does that star spangled banner wave over all we see, for the home of the land, and the land of the free!"

Bob Sharp said...

The Jose Feliciano version before game five of the 1968 World Series was so long that Tiger pitcher Mickey Lolich didn't have a chance to properly warm up before the game, and promptly gave up 3 runs in the first inning. He went on to win anyway.

Having said that, the very best version I ever heard was on the morning of July 4, 1976 -- the Bicentennial. I believe it was on one of the morning shows (Today or Good Morning America). If memory serves it was sung by a first grade teacher from Indiana, and she did all four verses, very simply, and in exactly the right tempo. It took nearly 15 minutes, and was magnificent.