I’m not one to rue the passing of the olden days: I love power windows and locks, personal electronic devices, luggage with wheels, no iron fabrics, contact lenses, AC… the list goes on. Often times, in my opinion, when things change, they change for the better. But there’s a flip side: some developments aren’t progress at all, but, in fact, set us back. Because they morph so gradually, we don’t realize the implications until they’ve already changed us. One such development during the last couple of decades is the high jacking of our national anthem.
Once upon a time, when an emcee or announcer in an auditorium or stadium asked everyone to stand for the singing of the national anthem, the entire assembly would rise to their feet, place hands over their hearts and beginning doing something that has more recently become socially taboo: they would open their mouths and sing. It was tacitly understood that when the song got to the “rockets’ red glare” part, voices would get thin and maybe even a little sharp or flat, but that wasn’t the point: it was our song, the anthem of a people, and it was our birthright to sing it wholeheartedly*.
As I began witnessing the subtle trend away from actually singing aloud, I held my ground, continuing to stage my little protests by persisting in singing along with the band at sporting events or graduations. For quite a long time, there would be a handful of other people singing with me, we lone guardians of a fading tradition. Over time, bands (and other modes of accompaniment) gave way to the song being sung as a solo by pop artists who added more embellishments to it than lights on the Times Square Christmas tree. It frustrates me that this mode effectively shuts down any prospect of singing along.
Just this evening, the family was discussing the loss of this cultural tradition. My son remarked that people nowadays, in general, are much more interested in being entertained than doing: for instance, we spend oodles of time watching shows about cooking rather than actually cooking. Activity has been supplanted by mere observation of other peoples’ activity. I suspect this shift distracts us from our underlying issues, but that’s another topic for another day. This penchant for being entertained explains why audiences don’t, nor have any expectation that they would, actually sing The Star Spangled Banner in public anymore. They no longer engage with the song; they merely listen and are entertained (to one degree or another).
A few years back I had a chance to visit Fort McHenry in Baltimore. At the conclusion of the National Park Service orientation film in the visitors center, the Marine Corps choir began singing Francis Scott Key’s beautiful lyrics a capella. During the first few measures of the song, a motor opened drapes that hid a large picture window on the side of the theater, revealing a forty-foot United States flag waving in the breeze, not far from the “ramparts” behind which American soldiers defended against the all-night assault by the British ships in Chesapeake Bay. Our family happened to be the only visitors in the small theater that day, so I was free…
You see, I believe that when we let our bodies agree with and express what’s in our minds and in our hearts, something very positive happens to us: we become more integrated, more centered, more sure of what we’re all about — more alive. And that’s a good thing. As I stood there singing with all my heart, tears welled up and ran down my cheeks. In that moment, being an American had come to mean something a little deeper, a little richer. But I was also sad to experience the moment in isolation and not with hundreds, or even thousands, of fellow Americans — lifting voices as one, in celebration of our shared past and collective futures.
I fear it’s a losing proposition, but can we, the people, somehow take back our song?
* And yes, once upon a time I thought the first phrase was, “Jose, can you see…” But I was just a little kid.