As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses

We’re heading into the patriotic season here in the U.S. (Flag Day, Independence Day, Carl Garner Federal Lands Clean-Up Day), and if you’re going to be singing the national anthem, Howard Weiss has words for you.

People forget the original purpose, and now the national anthem has become a vehicle for shameless self-promotion by many popular entertainers.

Singers and instrumentalists tastelessly ornament the original melody by adding high notes that were not written, actually singing/playing wrong notes and rhythms and holding notes way beyond the composer’s written intentions. They are calling attention to themselves and not the more noble purposes of the national anthem. The self-aggrandizing posture is loathsome!

Weiss is the former concertmaster of the Rochester Philharmonic, and the founding conductor of the Rochester Youth Symphony (not to mention a long-suffering Cubs fan, apparently), so we’ll take his rant seriously, but even still, I think he’s trying to lasso a river here. (As a sometime organist, I also need to point out that the Ives “Variations” are on “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee.”) Is it unpatriotic to fess up and say that I think “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a less-than-stellar piece of music? It’s far too hard to sing (an octave-and-a-half range? Yikes), it commemorates a war that wasn’t one of our more shining moments; and unless you know any verse beyond the first, it ends on an unanswered yes-or-no question. (It’s not accidental that the renditions Weiss holds up for admiration are instrumental.) And as for “the more noble purposes” of the anthem, the only reason I don’t advocate switching to “America the Beautiful” (a lovely Katherine Lee bates poem sung to Francis Ward Smith’s lovely Materna), is that the current tune was originally a drinking song.

No, that’s not the only reason. We need this anthem. I think it’s a good bulwark against fascism and undue state-worship to have an anthem that’s so inevitably caterwauled. It’s a reminder that songs, or flags, or rituals aren’t what made this country great; America has been at its greatest when fallible individuals have reached out to other fallible individuals, with all the risk it entails. The anthem is, like the country, more a hopeful ideal than a fixed artifact. When the crowd cheers for the high note, they’re recognizing the chance the singer is taking; when the singer misses, it lets just enough air out of the dignity of the proceedings to remind us how far we have to go. The awful, beautiful thing about this country is that it is, still, an unresolved question.

And hey, every once in a while you get Marvin Gaye.


  1. The profound thing about the “Star Spangled Banner” is that it is impossible to sing. Just as a country so concieved and so dedicated as ours is an impossibility.The greatness of that country is that we can have people who would worship the song or the flag and at the same time have people who have the courage to make it thier own.Especially when they do it with an electric guitar at sunrise at Woodstock.Our moral heritage is that we thumb our noses at the stuffy, life hating control freaks (King George III, for instance) who would impose on our freedoms

  2. Also, I find it fascinating that, since we almost always only hear the first verse, the Star-Spangled Banner ends on a question. “Oh say, does that star=spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Perhaps the answer is no? Or yes? One never gets to know at the baseball game, because the answer is in the next verse(s). Perhaps there’s some philosophical point to be made about the constant state of peril we’re in, and the endless doubt as to whether the symbol of our flag can remain elevated o’er the land…

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