CHICAGO — This year, like no other before, I feel a deep desire to get back to basics. It’s been an especially difficult few weeks of tumult over race, same-sex marriage rights, immigration and other issues that highlight our differences rather than our similarities.
I’m craving a unifying gesture: a return to plain, traditional (some might misguidedly say “boring”) renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the Fourth of July.
It might seem like a small thing to some, but it rankles me every time I hear a souped-up version of the national anthem. I’m not some stick-in-the-mud when it comes to different musical styles and genres, but I’m old enough that when I was a child there were, at most, three popular versions played at traditional occasions: a full orchestral instrumentation, a band version and the solo variety.
Every once in a while you’d hear a sung choir version, but what all these interpretations had in common was that they followed the basic musical structure of John Stafford Smith’s “The Anacreontic Song,” the theme song of a London gentlemen’s club that was popular in the 1800s and served as the musical accompaniment to Francis Scott Key’s poem “Defence of Fort McHenry.”
Essentially, I’m pining for a return to a standard, bare-bones, 3/4-time, one-and-a-half octave rendition devoid of odd syncopations, extra grace notes, dizzying arpeggios or nearly endless fermata holds. Oh, and no ear-splitting, headache-inducing high notes.
That’s grumpy-sounding, I know. Perhaps that’s the burden of a classically trained musician who spent decades learning to read music as it was written by the composer and then performing it as closely to the notation as possible each and every time. I’m probably a relic in that sense.
That was my thought at the beginning of my oldest son’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony in May. In their infinite wisdom, someone at his school decided that it would be nice to have a staff member — who’s also a local amateur vocalist — sing the national anthem.
It was uncomfortable. Aside from being extremely long, cascading wildly up and down what seemed like at least three octaves and, at times, provocatively breathy, it mostly disappointed on the basis of being barely recognizable.
What, I thought, must all the mostly recent immigrants in this crowd think they’re listening to? Would they realize that this was supposedly the same tune that plays during formal national ceremonies and international events such as the Olympics to represent America?
My dad will want to kill me for saying so, but as a kid schooled by a staff of strict flag-wavers, I was alarmed by Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And Hendrix wasn’t the first to take artistic liberties with it — Jose Feliciano is widely credited to have been the first popular performer to stir controversy with a non-traditional approach to the national anthem during the 1968 World Series.
Feliciano’s version doesn’t stir me either, but at least it’s not as self-indulgent as other performances that have come after it. In the years since those two artists broke with tradition there has been an endless stream of interpretations of our national anthem — country, R&B, heavy metal, reggae, salsa/tropical, rap, hip/hop — some of which we’re subjected to during nationally televised sporting events. I pretty much hate them all.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is not about genres, self-aggrandizement or artistic self-expression. It is a tribute to our nation’s roots. That’s a hard notion for some to swallow in an age where nods to diversity and multiculturalism, not to mention worship of individualism above all else, often trump the antiquated belief in patriotism and national unity.
Ironically, a few weeks ago 11-year-old Sebastien De La Cruz, a Mexican-American San Antonio, Texas, native known as “The Boy With the Golden Voice,” was harassed and denounced on social media for singing the national anthem at the beginning of an NBA finals game clothed in mariachi attire.
Note that unlike other jokers who’ve sung it in worn T-shirts and raggedy jeans, De La Cruz was dressed formally.
More importantly, he belted out the anthem totally straight, and from the heart. America needs more “Star-Spangled Banners” like that — with respect for the tradition of reverence the anthem symbolizes. And with deference to its national, not individual, nature.
Follow Esther Cepeda on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.