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'Star-Spangled Banner': the anthem that challenges the meek and the mighty

October 22, 2012

By Lynda Hollenbeck

I was put on the spot a few days ago when I was asked to sing the national anthem for an event commemorating the end of the long career for a friend.
County Clerk Freddy Burton, whom I've known since 1970, is calling it quits. He's done a great job in that office and is probably one of the best-liked politicians around. He cares about people and has surrounded himself with staff people who have shared his philosophy, so he's had a truly successful run in office.
Anyway, Freddy has this "thing" about performances of our national song, which I know, so I came into the process with that bit of pressure. He hates for people to rearrange it in attempts at vocal gymnastics, and he particularly dislikes any rearranging of the melody.
In other words, he likes "The Star-Spangled Banner" done just the way old Francis Scott Key and his contemporaries desired. I accept that.
That's just part of my pressure. Though I've been singing most of my life — I had a late start about age 3 — I haven't sung in nearly six months because of a life experience. Singing can be an emotional challenge, which other musicians will understand; non-singers may not get it, but I assure you it's true. The last time I sang publicly was the last time my late husband was able to attend church. Life quickly careened into difficult times for us following that event and I just haven't trusted myself to perform vocally.
I play the piano every Sunday morning for church services. That's not a problem. My fingers behave even when my heart is breaking, but the voice can present a challenge.
In any event, Lib Carlisle more or less shamed me into agreeing to try to do this for Freddy, and as I write this, it still hasn't happened. That is scheduled to transpire a few hours from this writing.
I'm going to have to rely on the Almighty to get me through it and the assistance of Bob Kellam, who is to accompany me on his trumpet. We shall see.
I never perform that song without thinking of all the "greats" who have floundered publicly when they've accepted the challenge. And it is a challenging piece of music. It jumps all over the musical range.
I know in advance that I will, of course, think about my favorite singer of all time, the late Robert Goulet, who had to live down a national anthem blooper. Instead of singing "the dawn's early light," his lips formed "the dawn's early night," which makes no sense, but singers everywhere understand that it happens.
It was in 1965 when singer Bob performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine.
To the crooner's eternal regret, he failed to heed the advice of Nat King Cole, who once said, "If you do nothing else in your life, don't ever sing the national anthem at a ball game."
"You've got 'night,' 'light,' 'twilight,' 'bright' and 'fight,' and you've got to make them all go in the proper direction," Goulet said later when talking about that mix-up.
He gave hundreds of flawless renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" after that night in Lewiston, but he said nobody ever asked him about those times. He blamed the attention on the fight, which turned out to be a bust when Ali knocked out Liston in the first round.
"I walked into that town and I was a hero. Then the fight lasted a minute and half, and I walked out of town a bum," he said.
It's hard to explain, but for a singer, there's an alluring upside to surviving the anthem.
A lot of people didn't know it at the time, but several years ago, the late Whitney Houston resorted to lip-synching when she performed the anthem, with the Florida Orchestra, before Super Bowl XXV in Tampa Stadium.
The orchestra track was recorded at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center earlier in January. Whitney's track was put on in California, according to the former executive director of the orchestra.
At the game everyone was playing, and Whitney was singing, but there were no live microphones. Everyone was lip-synching or finger-synching. And no one knew.
She was a fantastic singer and her recording was outstanding, but for me personally, my absolutely favorite performance of the national anthem was recorded on a tiny cassette player a number of years ago as my spouse was driving granddaughter Abbey home from Jolly Time Preschool. The children had been taught the anthem at school and she was showing off for her Poppy.
For her big finish, Abbey sang: " ... and the home in the heart of the brave."
That's the way she heard it, and by golly, that's the way it was. With the kind of determination that comes only from a 4-year-old, she convinced us that hers was the right rendition.
I still sing the song that way sometimes. But I'm going to try really hard not to do it for Freddy's party.

Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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