Try singing the National Anthem right, for a change


Sorry to break it to you, but you’ve been singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” wrong. So has Beyonce, Josh Groban — pretty much everyone, especially Christina Aguilera.

Starting Saturday, you can apologize in person to the oldest existing draft of the song and the flag that inspired it at the National Museum of American History. The two artifacts are on display together for the first time starting Saturday, in honor of the song’s 200th anniversary.

If you’d like to sing a historically accurate rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — or, as it was originally known, “The Defence of Fort M’Henry” — here are some tips from David Hildebrand, director of the Colonial Music Institute. (Also, listen to a proper version of the song, and vote on the worst celebrity mangling of the tune.)

Repeat: ‘O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.’

Traditionally, regular folks didn’t sing along to the entire song. The audience-participation bit happened at the end, with everyone repeating the last two lines after the soloist, call-and-response style. It’s a vestige of the tune Francis Scott Key borrowed for his patriotic masterpiece: a popular English drinking song.

Skip the first flourish.

If you are the soloist, sing “Oh” on the same note you use for “Say.” The two-note lead-in we’re used to hearing was a later invention, perhaps by “some showoff-y singer,” Hildebrand says.

Better yet, skip all the flourishes.

The ornamentation added by modern singers masks the spare beauty of the song, Hildebrand says. The worst offense is when performers (cough, cough Aguilera) add a whole extra beat per measure to give themselves more time for vocal gymnastics. “My belief is the melody should be sung as simply and beautifully as possible,” he says. “Let the words speak for themselves.”

Flatten that F-sharp.

The notes for “ear-ly” were originally E and F. An organist moved the second half of the word up to F-sharp in an early printing of the sheet music. It’s a subtle change, but “the F-sharp makes more musical sense,” Hildebrand says.

Don’t forget the other verses.

To paraphrase, the first verse asks a question: Is the flag still up? Yup, sure is, says verse two. Verse three adds, It was looking like a close one, for a minute there. These are all lovely sentiments, but the fourth verse gives the ordeal a sense of meaning.

“The fourth verse says that God has seen fit that the nation will continue and hopefully prosper,” says Burton K. Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society, which is loaning the manuscript to the Smithsonian. “Francis Scott Key was a religious man, and he believed that Baltimore was spared so that America could continue its great experiment in democracy.”

National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW; Sat. through July 6, free; 202-633-1000. (Smithsonian)

Or Just Sing It the Usual Way

On Saturday, the Smithsonian is encouraging people across the country to sing (the regular version of) “The Star-Spangled Banner,” all together at 4 p.m. If you feel silly trilling alone in your bedroom — and you should — head to one of these spots for a group sing.

  • The National Mall Brian McKnight and The U.S. Air Force Band will warm up the crowd with patriotic tunes before the big event. (12th and 14th Streets NW)
  • The James Monroe Museum Toot along with kazoos and eat ice cream afterward. (908 Charles St., Fredericksburg, Va.)
  • Fort McHenry Sing the anthem from behind the very ramparts it celebrates. (2400 E. Fort Ave., Baltimore)

You might also enjoy:

Vote: Which celebrity performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the worst?

Meet four founding mothers history overlooked

Six lies tour guides tell D.C. tourists (that you probably believe too)

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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Sadie Dingfelder · June 12, 2014