Oh, Say Can't You Sing? Why the National Anthem Befuddles Singers

Last week, I, like 100 million others, watched the spectacle of Christina Aguilera wailing her way through "The Star Spangled Banner." When she wound up repeating the line "What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming," I began to wonder if I hadn't remembered the words properly. I soon realized that this was not the case because the lyrics were playing on a screen behind her head. Perhaps if she had been facing another direction, she might have avoided the "mistake heard round the world."

Aguilera's Not Alone

While all of us who have grown up in the United States have been raised hearing the National Anthem from birth, it's frighteningly easy to forget portions of it. One of the funniest sequences in The Naked Gun occurs when the heroic but dimwitted cop Frank Drebin (played by the late Canadian actor Leslie Nielson) mangles both the words and the melody into hilariously incomprehensible drivel.

There was also a great scene in All in the Family where the ignorant Archie Bunker inadvertently mashed up Francis Scott Key's lyrics with "My Country Tis of Thee," which takes its melody from "God Save the Queen," the national anthem for the United Kingdom. Considering that we fought two wars to be free of the British, that's pretty embarrassing.

Actually, Aguilera and her fictional counterparts Drebin and Bunker aren't the only ones who need to brush up on the song. In real life, Keri Hilson, Patti LaBelle, Michael Bolton, Rosanne Barr, Jessica Simpson and others have changed listening the National Anthem into a practice that might violate our Constitution's provisions against cruel and unusual punishment. Thank goodness these folks weren't called upon to sing the other three verses. The whole song goes like this:

Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light

What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight

O'er the ramparts we watch'd were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,

Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,

What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,

As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,

In full glory reflected now shines in the stream.

'Tis the star-spangled banner, oh, long may it wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion

A home and a country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wash'd out their foul footstep's pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Oh, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand

Between their lov'd home and the war's desolation!

Blest with vict'ry and peace may the heav'n-rescued land

Praise the power that hath made and preserv'd us a nation

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto, "In God is our Trust,"

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

In seeing the full text, one thing that jumps out is how many question marks and exclamation points litter the song. There are five question marks altogether, three of which are in the first verse alone. Key's punctuation scheme led Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in his novel Breakfast of Champions, to lament that "The Star-Spangled Banner" was "gibberish sprinkled with question marks." In his essay anthology Palm Sunday, Vonnegut was even more blunt, "Everyone knows that the 'The Star-Spangled Banner' is a bust as music and poetry, and is as representative of the American spirit as the Taj Mahal." Vonnegut even suggested that the Statler Brothers tune "The Class of '57," a song about the disappointment that comes from getting older, was preferable to our existing anthem.

So what is it that makes "The Star-Spangled Banner" such an obstacle for singers to master? I e-mailed my cousin Carrie Lewis to find out. Carrie is both a professional soprano and a music teacher in New York, so she has a good idea of what screws up performers who attempt to master it. She's also a first-generation immigrant from South Korea. My aunt and uncle adopted her when she was an infant, and almost from birth, she demonstrated a gift for vocalizing that dwarfs the skills of the rest of the family.

The Tale of the Tune

The first factor that Carrie cites is the melody by English composer John Stafford Smith. Many folks simply don't have the vocal range to sing it. Stafford Smith may also have been a teenager when he wrote the tune. "The range of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' is quite large," she says. "You have to start pretty low to leave space for the higher notes at the end."

Stafford Smith's original song "To Anacreon in Heaven" was written for the Anacreontic Society of London. And what exactly did the Anacreontic Society of London do?

They consumed alcohol.

Because the melody was intended to be performed by people so inebriated they didn't know they were off pitch, it's understandable that sober, conscientious singers might stumble through the tune as it reveals their vocal limitations.

Even if Stafford Smith had written a simpler melody, singers have another obstacle. As Carrie says, "The words are just really archaic." To keep up with the meter, Key takes some shortcuts that seem a little awkward to modern ears.

Maybe they sounded odd back in 1814, too. The last time I checked, "watched" doesn't lose a syllable by being changed to "watch'd," nor does "hailed" by being abbreviated to "hail'd." They are one syllable words to begin with. Getting your tongue around that can be tricky.

A Song in the Key of Life

To be honest, I find the story behind Key's poem to be more moving than the work itself. Key, who was an attorney by profession, had written his "Defence of Fort M'Henry" in 1814. The War of 1812, which actually lasted a couple of years, was a low point in America's history. The Brits, angry about American pirates attacking their ships, struck with such fury that they burned Washington, DC.

It was only days later, from September 12 to 14 of 1814 that the British tried to take the vital port of Baltimore. Guarding the city was Ft. McHenry, which took an unbelievable shelling. Over a period of 25 hours, the invaders fired somewhere between 1,500 to 1,800 rounds, but the fort stood, and the flag, sewed by local seamstress Mary Pickersgill, was still waiving. The 42 feet by 30 feet banner informed the British that victory wasn't theirs. It certainly helped that one of the British mortar rounds that landed near the fort's magazine was a dud. If it had exploded, we'd be singing a much different tune before sporting events.

Key witnessed the battle from another ship. He had been captured by the British when he was trying to persuade them to release of Dr. William Beanes. They had arrested the doctor during the assault on Washington. After the British gave up on taking over Baltimore, they let Key go, and his poem was published shortly afterward. Because the victory was unexpected, the song reminded Americans that we can endure even when fate can be at its most cruel. I learned this story from a traveling theater group who came to my school when I was about eight years old. The explosions in the tale captured my youthful love of pyrotechnics, and the battle against adversity stays with me now.

Getting It Right

I believed Aguilera when she told the AP, "I got so lost in the moment of the song that I lost my place. I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and that the true spirit of its anthem still came through." This of course begs the question, how can singers avoid getting into trouble performing a tricky song that means a lot to their fellow Americans?

Carrie has some suggestions. "Most people do it a cappella (without accompaniment) so they can go as fast or slow or with as much rhythmic prerogative as they like. However, singing it a cappella can also lead to a lot of people going way off key, mainly starting in one key and ending in another.

"I think it would be horrifying to sing this in front of a packed stadium. But honestly, I tell most people that have to perform anything live (at a wedding or such) to use the (sheet) music so they don't get flustered and screw up the words. Most of the time it is unavoidable to need to memorize something, but if you could get away with it, I would."

Just as Ft. McHenry withstood a seemingly fatal assault, "The Star-Spangled Banner" can take a faulty rendition or two. Key's joy at seeing the flag waving defiantly comes through even though we aren't there to witness the triumph with him. It's an emotion that sour notes and botched lyrics can't dim.