Thursday, July 5, 2012

Oh say can you see?

If there's one thing you heard yesterday, along with the pop-pop-pop of illicit fireworks and the BOOM-KA-BOOM of the real thing, it was probably--hopefully--the song that starts with these words.

"Oh say can you see at the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?"

The song, of course, is "The Star-Spangled Banner," our national anthem. It's a stirring piece of music, based on a poem written during the War of 1812 by Francis Scott Key and set to a well-known English tune of the day.  The original was four verses long, though I'd challenge just about anyone to come up with a word of stanzas two through four without assistance.
Heck, a lot of folks have trouble with the first one. And with just singing the song as it was written.
It requires a vocal reach of an octave-and-a-half, which, while a little demanding, should be no real challenge for a competent singer who knows enough to start low in order to successfully reach the high parts. None the less, it's been butchered by a whole host of pro warblers and other celebs, including Christina Aguilera (forgot the words), Hillary Clinton (forgot the mic was on), and Roseanne Barr (should have forgotten to show up in the first place.) Other renderings of the venerated anthem have seen it transformed into a variety of rock/pop/funk/soul/country versions, often with less-than-stellar results.
Key wrote the poem with the song in mind while watching the British blast the bejeebers out of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.  He had no idea that the likes of Michael Bolton, Cyndi Lauper, American Idol winner Scotty McCreery and Aerosmith frontman/Idol judge Steven Tyler would go on to blast his words and work into near-unrecognizability.
Of course, not all of the big-venue renditions have been busts.
Check out the Dixie Chicks' rich, but simple arrangement at the 2003 Super Bowl, Whitney Houston's definitive performance at Super Bowl XXV or Beyonce Knowles' sensational singing job at Super Bowl XXXVIII. Dig a little deeper, and you'll find a nifty harmonic rendering by Phish at a New Jersey Nets game, Jose Feliciano's much-maligned, guitar-and-voice interpretation before Game Five of the 1968 World Series, Marvin Gaye's questioned, but oh-so-smooth adaptation at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game and the ultimate surprise, a sweet, poignant rendering by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Vince Welnick of the Grateful Dead before a 1993 San Francisco Giants' game.
But my all-time fave was one of the most contentious, at the time, at least.
During the final set of the historic Woodstock music festival, Jimi Hendrix let loose with a stunning rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner on electric guitar that's been called one of the most important political rock statements of the 1960s and the Vietnam era.  Even today, music scholars can't agree on what message Hendrix's screaming guitar and ballistic feedback was trying to deliver. Using a whammy bar and a fuzz box, Hendrix captured the sound of falling bombs and screaming rockets, of ultimate victory and crushing despair. Some saw it as an update on patriotism--stars and stripes turned psychedelic--while others claimed they couldn't even recognize the melody. Musically, it was a shot heard 'round the world, as it changed our national anthem from a traditional marching-band piece into a bombastic vehicle for solo electric guitar during a period of time when our nation was bursting at the seams over the very definition of America and patriotism.
 “I’m American, so I played it. I didn’t think it was unorthodox,” Hendrix said. “I thought it was beautiful.
He was right. it was.
It still is, in fact.
Both the song and the nation it stands for.

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