Press Coverage


Houston Chronicle

Sunday 07/04/04
Section: A
Page: 1

A dissenting note on Francis Scott 's key
One man crusades to give anthem a different, more singable sound


Forget conflicts around the globe keeping many Americans off-key this Fourth of July.

A California psychiatrist suggests we focus instead on a debate as safe and familiar as kids squabbling at the dinner table or fans booing at a ballgame.

Dr. Ed Siegel of Solana Beach wants to lower the key of The Star-Spangled Banner from B flat to G major.

Americans are the only people in the world who can't sing their national anthem, he says, and he offers the rockets'-red-glare line as an example. Regular folks know they can't hit the high notes, so they give up.

Siegel, 64, has been passionate about this tempest for years, even though professional musicians demur. The problem with the anthem, if there is a problem, the musicians say, is the octave-and-a -half range, not the key .

Siegel seems not to hear them.

In 1987, he started a Thursday night singalong in a Solana Beach community center overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

He ends the 90-minute session with a patriotic song, usually The Star-Spangled Banner in the key of G major. The place just erupts with proud Americans singing, Siegel says.

In 1994, Siegel got serious about his campaign. He began mentioning the key change at Rotary Club meetings, civic events, even the annual gatherings of the American Psychiatric Association.

"I wanted people to understand they could sing the song if they switched keys," he says.

In 1999, Siegel contacted U.S . Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., who wrote to House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Cunningham's request: Could Siegel play the anthem in G major before the second session of the 106th Congress?

No, said Hastert, but thanks for the patriotic thoughts.

In 2000, Siegel asked a Marine band at the San Diego County Fair to play the anthem in G major. Military musicians told him they'd have to get permission from the Pentagon.

They weren't joking. The U.S . Department of Defense requires military bands to play the anthem in B flat, explains Master Sgt. Bob Storck, with the Air Force Band of the West.

Slowed but not defeated, Siegel went before the Solana Beach City Council in June, led everyone in a rousing rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner and asked council members to pass a resolution. The gist: Whenever audiences are asked to sing the anthem, let it be played in G major.

The resolution passed unanimously, but not everybody in that partisan crowd was pleased.

"God bless Mr. Siegel," says Joseph Evans, associate professor of voice at the University of Houston. "He's free to choose any key he wants and to sing as low as he wishes. But I'm a tenor, and the key of G major would leave me out, and other tenors and sopranos, too. B flat is not a difficult key ."

Barbara Rose Lange, an associate professor of ethnomusicology at UH, says Siegel's idea is terrible. "The key he's proposing is not suitable for band instruments. Many of them are constructed in the key of B flat."

Siegel's campaign actually has taken on some heft of late. He's been interviewed by numerous media outlets.

Siegel is delighted with the current stir.

"When I was a kid, I dreamed of doing something special. Not that I want fame. . . . But I thought I could be Johnny Appleseed. The Johnny Appleseed of singing."

Siegel has been been playing the piano since the age of 4, and although he lacks much formal instruction, he can play thousands of tunes by ear.

To keep his hand in, he enjoys the weekly singalongs and other opportunities to sing the anthem. He is slightly miffed, however, that he's at a family picnic today and not at a gig.

"It seems like I should have a major event lined up, but I don't," Siegel says. "The San Diego Padres aren't even answering my calls."

He'll be coming to Houston at the end of the month to see his niece and great-nephew. If he were invited, he says, he'd be delighted to lead Astros fans in the anthem at Minute Maid Park.



Francis Scott Key wrote The Star-Spangled Banner in September 1814.

The United States was at war with Great Britain, and Key was a prisoner on a ship outside Fort McHenry. Bombing had gone on all day and night. At dawn, Key was so happy to see the flag he wrote the song.

Key , a lawyer and poet, wrote the lyrics. The tune was from an old English drinking ballad.

In 1931, Congress named The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem.

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