FROM TALK RADIO to the president, agitated Americans have expressed anger over the "desecration" of "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- a new version sung in Spanish. But the anthem, for more than a century, has been cheapened, insulted and even besmirched by well-intentioned but misguided Americans who think they can improve on it. Such conduct -- except when it touches the immigration question -- is now generally ignored. The current flap is just another opportunity to bash immigrants who happen to be from the "wrong" countries.
Although President Bush argues that the anthem should only be sung in English, performing it in a foreign language isn't novel. Wikipedia links to reports that German and Latin translations appeared in the 1860s, followed by a Yiddish version. The U.S. Bureau of Education printed it in Spanish in 1919. In those more idyllic days, immigrants demonstrated their love for their new home by joyfully singing the anthem in their native tongue. You can find it in Spanish on the current State Department website.
Other versions left the words alone but altered the melody, in one case so drastically that it got the arranger-conductor in trouble. When Igor Stravinsky raised his baton in Boston in 1944 to conduct the anthem, a dutiful audience began to sing but, according to one report, as the strange and dissonant notes continued, "eyebrows lifted, voices fluttered and the singing stopped." Boston authorities warned Stravinsky that he was in violation of a state law that forbade rearrangement of the anthem. Music critic Albert Goldberg noted that Stravinsky's version was banned in Boston and booed in Baltimore, but the composer escaped sanctions.
But not Karl Muck, who also conducted in Boston. His sin was not that he wrote a discordant arrangement. It was that he didn't play it at all. During World War I, the German native allegedly refused to lead the orchestra in a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Muck claimed that the piece was left off the program because musically it was not in accord with the serious compositions scheduled. The popular feeling was that he was pro-German. Arrest and deportation followed.
Today, the Web holds hundreds of anthem recordings, many of them unorthodox versions. "Star-Mangled Banner," by John Gettings on the www.infoplease.com\o7 \f7site\o7, \f7 mentions Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock electric-guitar version, Jose Feliciano's "slow, bluesy" World Series rendition and Marvin Gaye's 1983 NBA All-Star game's "soul and funk interpretation." And who can forget Roseanne Barr's off-key interpretation at a 1990 San Diego baseball game? And Carla Bley's 2003 "National Anthem" runs on for more than 20 minutes, with bits of "The Star-Spangled Banner" fading in and out. Talk radio is undisturbed by her blasphemy.
So how should the anthem be played and sung? William Santelmann, director of the U.S. Marine Band from 1898 to 1927, insisted that it be performed as written, without embellishments. Composer and bandmaster Edwin Franko Goldman called for a government-approved arrangement.
In 1918, before Congress had made the anthem our official hymn, a committee approved the B-flat arrangement that has plagued nearly everyone who ever tried to sing "the rockets red glare." It was adopted by the military and became standard sheet music for school bands. But the difficulty with the B-flat version persisted, and during World War II the military officially accepted the A-flat version, erroneously referred to as the "easy to sing" arrangement.
Having an official version, though, has never meant that it was the only version. The next time a would-be singer desecrates "The Star-Spangled Banner" on amateur night at the local ballpark, will those who today express outrage at the audacity of a Spanish- language version be as incensed?