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What so proudly we hailed.

To: Singers of America
From: Kurt
Date: Jan. 21
Subject: Land of the free

Hey, guys:

You’re doing a great job. Really crushing it out there. Believe me.

But there’s a little matter we need to discuss — just a bump in the road, really.

I’m hoping to have it cleared up by the time pitchers and catchers report, and I’m going to need all of your help.

It has to do with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Specifically, it has to do with the last line of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” You know how it goes (even if you couldn’t quite remember it that one time before the JV football game):

“O’er the land of the free / and the home of the brave?”

You’ve probably heard singers break the word “free” into two syllables, and take the second one up four extra notes to the octave.

In fact, you probably saw Beyonce doing it at the presidential inauguration this morning. You probably thought: Ain’t no thing. I could do that.

Please don’t.

Here’s why:

1. That high note? It’s not in the song. The national anthem is not a vehicle for improvisation. Sing it like it’s written.

Seriously: The world is full of songs you can screw around with without repercussion, from “This Land Is Your Land” to “Mairzy Doats” to “Quando, Quando, Quando” to “Chuck E.’s In Love.” You wanna color outside the lines? Stick to one of those.

2. That high note? It’s not creative. It’s been done enough times that it will never be original. But at the same time, because it’s an affectation, it will never seem authentic. That’s the worst kind of gray area to get stuck in.

Going high on the “free-eeee” is like being the fifth girl in to a high-school slap fight. You’re not doing it ’cause the principle moves you; you’re just doing it ’cause everyone else is.

3. That high note? It’s not necessary. For anyone who’s paying attention, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a perfectly affecting song the way it’s written. It doesn’t need to be kicked up a notch by vocal showboating. (And indeed, it usually isn’t. See No. 2 above.)

4. That high note? It’s not in your range. Have Beyonce’s pipes? Maybe you can pull it off. Filling in at the Little League opening ceremony because the other singer in town has to man the snack booth? Trust me: Try for that high note, and no one there will ever look at you again without smirking.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation on this important national matter. I’m glad we could get this ironed out.

Now, let freedom ring!

– KWB

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6 responses »

  1. May it amuse you to know that when Francis Scott Key wrote The Star Spangled Banner at the battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812, he wrote it as a poem – no music, and it became quite popular across the U.S., such as it was in the 18-teens. Frank’s brother later figured out that the poem scanned with the melody of theme song of the English “Anacreontic Society”, an English upperclass men’s drinking club of the last half of the 1700s. People began singing “The Star Spangled Banner” to this melody. Just think – we couldn’t have invented baseball without it!

    The original song was called “To Anacreon in Heaven”, something you’d bellow and raise your glass to, words by Ralph Tomlinson, music by John Stafford Smith. For the record, Anacreon was a Greek poet (582-485 BC) who wrote about the joys of drinking, love and revelry.

    Here is the first verse of To Anacreon in Heaven. Try singing it along with Beyonce, without the high note!

    To Anacreon in heaven where he sat in full glee,
    A few sons of harmony sent a petition,
    That he their inspirer and patron would be,
    When this answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:
    Voice, fiddle and flute, no longer be mute,
    I’ll lend you my name and inspire you to boot!
    And besides I’ll instruct you like me to entwine
    The myrtle of Venus and Bacchus’s vine.

    I’m sure nobody went up the 4th on VeNUS!

    Reply
  2. Okay, okay you’re right. But I LOVE Whitney Houston’s version. I know, I know – it’s just what you described above, but it makes me tear up. Every time.

    Reply
    • I might just be a crabby SOB.

      For the record, I have also never liked Ray Charles’ version of “God Bless America” — I think he oversang the shit out of it, littering it with every inflection and ad-lib he could think up.
      But social media leads me to believe I may be the only person anywhere who thinks this.

      Reply
  3. No Ray Charles?!?! Ouch!! Well, no judgment of crabby from me – really, each to his own. I have to admit I know the whole history – slavery, 3/5 human, Jim Crow – in my heritage makes me a little ambivalent singing along with “free” in these songs. I feel like it does apply to me and yet it doesn’t; its for me, but not. So when someone sings one of these songs, giving it something of their own, I understand where they may be coming from. Mind you, a lot of the heavy handed, showboating is not what I’m referring to. I hate that, too, because it is a bunch of shit and very self-aggrandizing. I mean that soulful, pleading, reluctant but hopeful feeling that conveys the desire to be a part of something that you are not quite sure wants you. It can be like getting the holy ghost or singing with a longing for love; both of which can make you say to hell with the right notes.

    BUT, when it’s just affect – yeah, I’m with you. They should shut it.

    Reply
  4. Only Marvin Gaye gets to change the notes of the National Anthem. Mic drop.

    Reply

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