Press Coverage

Singing Our Song

June 13, 2004
The Boston Globe


That's why people grumble about the tune even as they stand, hand on heart, feeling the electricity of a soloist hitting the pregame high notes.

That's why periodically they ask: "Why not `America the Beautiful' for the anthem? Why not `God Bless America'? We can sing those - sort of." "The Star Spangled Banner" became the official US anthem by a vote of Congress in 1931, though the Army and Navy had adopted it in 1917 - brass bands loved it.

In 1971 the House of Representatives took pity on the shaky human voice and passed a resolution to lower the anthem from its traditional key of B flat to the key of G to make it more singable. The effort died in committee, much as psychiatrist Ed Siegel's 1999 effort died. Siegel, of Solana Beach, Ca., wanted a group sing of the anthem in the key of G on the floor of Congress to inspire legislation.

Siegel continues to press his cause locally with the Solana Beach City Council and hopes the effort will catch fire town by town until the entire United States can sing the anthem - if not perfectly, at least better than it does now.

But the key of G is no bargain with this tune, which soars an octave and a fifth no matter where it starts. That range gives the song its stirring character, says Michael Blake slee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education. His group is campaigning to get people to sing the anthem, no matter the key and no matter how hard.

The association is planning national sing-along events for 2006 when the Smithsonian Institution reintroduces the flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key's poem. That flag is being restored.

"It's our song!" Blakeslee said in a phone interview. "It wasn't meant to be a performance piece. We need to take ownership and have the confidence as a nation to sing it."

Americans were not intimidated back in 1814 when Key chose the unlikely "To Anacreon in Heaven" as the tune for his poem. It was the theme song of a gentlemen's club in London written by John Stafford Smith and belted out as members raised their glasses to the Greek poet.

Key's lyrics to Smith's tune proved an instant hit, and Americans could sing it without screeching, according to Valeska Hilbig, press officer at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. But, she noted, with no radio or TV, "people sang more."

Now they watch more, and they sit too much. Still, the national anthem does pull them to their feet, ever encouraging citizens to take a deep breath and at least try.