ONCE AGAIN WE'RE into the same old brouhaha, a move to junk the Star-Spangled Banner, on the ground that it is "unsingable," in favor of America the Beautiful, God Bless America, or some other favored selection, the advocates this time being a pair of congressmen, James M. Collins of Texas and Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, surveys by various radio stations showing popular support for a change - and so, for the two-dozenth time at least, I inject myself into the discussion, on the side of the Star-Spangled Banner.
I first encountered the unsingable aspect, the allegedly unsingable aspect of our anthem, in 1913, when I was just starting a year as principal of a high school on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I opened each day with assembly, beginning with a hymn, then the Lord's Prayer, then announcements, if any. So one morning, instead of a hymn, I had the bright idea of having everyone sing the Star-Spangled Banner. The teacher who played the accompaniments didn't seem too happy about it, I had no idea why. My voice is low, and I was reading the bass part and singing along, not paying too much attention to what was going on above me. Then I noticed I was singing alone. I put this down to collective derision, a chance for a unanimous laugh at my expense, how funny I sounded. So next day, with true high-school principal's determination to show who was boss, I called for a repeat, this time keeping silent, so there'd be nothing to snicker at. But once more all voices were silent - the pianist had it all to herself, and looked up at me at the end to know if she should go on to the second verse. I shook my head no, and at last realized there was something funny about it, that our anthem couldn't be sung, that it was no perversity on the part of the kids.
That lesson stuck, and years later, when I was an editorial writer for the New York World, a prominent daily of the Twenties, I would occasionally write an editorial in favor of the Star-Spangled Banner, greatly pleasing my editor, Walter Lippmann. "I've never seen so many reasons, so many good reasons it seems to me," he told me once, "why the Star-Spangled Banner is outstanding among national anthems - I confess myself quite astonished. Not that I mind - I'm delighted, actually, to have a red-white-and-blue rainbow in the sky, especially one that seems sincere, in view of the sour note we sound so often, that we have to sound, of course, especially on the subject of Prohibition. Keep it up." Prominent among the virtues of the Star-Spangled Banner, at least as I lined them out, was the fact that it was unsingable, so it would always be played smartly, by professional band or orchestra, without a crowd dragging it out, by trying to join in, and at a brisk vivid tempo.
Then John Green got into it.
Mr. Green, Johnny Green usually known as, is the Hollywood composer, pianist, and singer, who used to have an office down the hall from me in the Thalberg Building, or Iron Lung as we called it, at M.G.M., so I count him as a friend. I was able to check with him my observations of what he did, and get his corroboration. Mr. Green had charge of the music at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, the one held in 1960 that nominated John F. Kennedy for President. He assembled a choir to lead the singing, composed of celebrities so dazzling they hurt eyes, three of four dozen worthies who really could line it out. Mr. Green opened each session with the Star-Spangled delegates on the floor, and the 15,000 spectators in the balconies, to join in. To my astonishment, they did, really giving out, so it was a stirring thing to hear. But why? Why would this crowd sing, when my high school kids wouldn't? Suddenly an idea hit me, and I leaped to my piano to check Mr. Green's key. Instead of being in C, as my high school kids had been, or B-flat, as later kids were, he was in A-flat. In C the treble voice goes to G above the staff, a note so high only opera singers can sing it, and in B-flat, to F at the top of the staff, a note still too high for run-of-the-mill voices. But A-flat goes to E-flat at the top of the staff, a tone well within the range of almost anybody, and a white light dawned on me.
I'd been making a fool of myself in the World.
If Walter Lippmann had known a bit more about music, he wouldn't have been quite so pleased with the stuff I was dishing out. The Star-Spangled Banner, I was discovering, is unsingable when published in unsingable keys, but not when published in keys that make sense. This was explained to me by Mr. Gene Archer, who used to sing it to open Redskins football games, at first in the key of B-flat, not getting much help from the crowd. But when he switched to A-flat, they all joined in heartily, to his great satisfaction. The reason, he told me, for the use of the other keys, C at first, and then later B-flat, was that these keys are suited to military bands, which often had charge of the matter, the vocal question being disregarded.
As corroborating these general observations, there pops into my mind Miss Mildred Miller and her performance of the Star Spangled Banner one night on national television. Miss Miller, in case you don't place her, is the Metropolitan mezzo who has the distinction of being one of the few Carmens who really looked like Carmen - small, beautiful, and shapely, with a look in her eye when she wants it there. Seeing her dressed up tacky, switching her bottom in that certain way, you really believe the story, which you don't when most mezzos sing it. A fat femme fatale, alas, is a contradiction in terms, and most Carmens are fat - we could even say obese. Well, Miss Miller sang our anthem at the opening game of the World Series in 1971, with Pittsburgh playing Baltimore - the first World Series game, incidentally, that was ever played at night. Her voice isn't a dark mezzo, but a bright, hot mezzo, and she sang beautifully - but in the key of B-flat, which of course took her to the F at the top of the staff - and barely anyone joined in. Not that I minded - I could listen to her all night. But - hardly anyone joined in.
There also pops into my mind, in this connection, my mother, who was also an eminent singer - not quite as eminent as Miss Miller, but quite eminent, at that. She would always make it a point to attend the Washington's Birthday exercises my father elected himself to take charge of. He was president of Washington College, at Chestertown, on the Eastern Shore, which was named for George Washington, and as Washington was one of the college's founders, having kicked in a hundred pounds toward its endowment, my father thought his birthday rated special treatment. The program, as arranged by him, called for the Star-Spangled Banner, under the leadership of the student choir, at that time, of course, in the key of C, which took things to G above the staff. But by a funny coincidence, when choir, students, and even my father had quit from sheer throat collapse, there was my mother and her incomparable voice, perched on the G, with a beautiful bell-like tone and no hint of collapse at all. I used to assume that she went over to the exercises out of respect for George Washington, but now I begin to wonder. Was it that, or perhaps the chance to hog this spot, the opportunity it gave her, to bang out that high note for all and sundry to hear?
Glancing down at the newspaper article that started me off on this piece, I see a reproduction of Schirmer's latest publication of the Star-Spangled Banner, in A-flat. I congratulate Schirmer on waking up, at long last, to the key that people can sing in.
The Star-Spangled Banner is singable, now that at last we let it be.