Monday, March 13, 2006

Reteaching the National Anthem

New York Times
March 14, 2006
Project Reteaches National Anthem

PHOENIX, March 10 — Consider little Dean Nunley, 3 years old and warbling in a breathy, singsong voice at a "Star-Spangled Banner" singing contest at the Phoenix Zoo on Thursday: "Ooooh, say kin yooseeeeee?"

His treatment was touchingly intelligible before running into trouble at the ramparts and the perilous fight. He came back strong at the end, a feat of memorization and tune over comprehension. Dean, who had learned the song at hockey games, smiled at the applause and waddled off with his mother.

The problem, it has been suggested, is that little Dean is about as good as it gets in this country. The National Anthem Project, undertaken by a group of the nation's music teachers, says most Americans have largely forgotten the words to the national anthem and the story behind the song.

A Harris poll of 2,200 men and women conducted for the group found that 61 percent did not know all the words. For example, when asked what follows "whose broad stripes and bright stars," more people than not tended to mistakenly place phrases like "were so gallantly streaming" (34 percent) or "gave proof through the night" (19 percent).

The National Anthem Project is touring the country with a singular mission: to reteach a nation its anthem. The effort is much like the way the song first spread, state by state, though this time it has corporate sponsors, led by Jeep. The tour began in January in Florida, and Thursday's visit to the Phoenix Zoo was its 17th stop.

"Of all the millions and millions of songs that Americans are exposed to, the national anthem is our national anthem, the one piece that people should know how to sing," said David E. Circle, president of the National Association for Music Education, the teachers' group that came up with the idea.

And Cliff Siler, the tour manager, said: "This song is the spirit of America. We lost a lot of that at some point along the line."

As the girls from the choir of Cordova Middle School in Phoenix just learned, "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814.

"Something about Fort McHenry," said Bianca Nevarez, a seventh grader. "It was actually a poem, but they made it into a song."

Bianca is correct: struck by the sight of the American flag amid the smoke and flames of a battle with the British on Sept. 13, 1814, Key dashed off a poem on the back of a letter. The first verse became widely known as the anthem, but there are three that follow. The poem, "Defence of Fort McHenry," was published in newspapers around the country.

(The later verses maintain the hopeful tone while examining the effects of all those rockets and bombs bursting in air. "Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution," Key wrote of the enemy, a line perhaps not ill suited for hockey games, but difficult to imagine teaching 3-year-olds. "No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.")

Another choir singer, Kassandra Rosas, 12, said: "It was a beer-drinking song. They made it into the national anthem."

Kassandra is correct: it is believed that a relative of Key got the idea to sing the words of the poem to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven," an English song popular in taverns. In fact, the first known performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" took place in a bar the month after the battle, sung by a Baltimore actor, Ferdinand Durang. The song became the national anthem in 1931, having been performed at military and sporting events for many years.

There have been earnest attempts to drop the song as the anthem, and replace it with something more benign, like "America the Beautiful." A major problem with "The Star-Spangled Banner," experts say, is that it is all but unsingable.

Steven Blier, a vocal coach at the Juilliard School, rattled off four reasons: "It's rangy, it has that legato phrase on a high note, the climax ends on a high note with a bad vowel, and the word setting is bad at some crucial spots." The song's lowest note, at the word "say" in the first line, is an octave and a half below its highest notes, at "red glare" and "free" toward the end.

So, paradoxically, the song may arouse feelings of humiliation and embarrassment rather than pride. "It's an awkward song to ask untrained people to belt out," Mr. Blier said.

The song's pitfalls did not dampen the spirits at the Phoenix Zoo, where several children and adults took turns before a microphone in unseasonably warm weather. Lynda Holly, 56, a former lounge singer who is a train operator at the zoo, was among the first.

"It's always been my mom's dream," Ms. Holly said, quoting her: " 'If I ever had a last wish, it would be to have my daughter sing at a ballgame.' "

The tour manager, Mr. Siler, is a father of five in Fort Worth, a stuntman and performer at live-action shows for children. "This is the job of a lifetime for me," he said. "I love this song."

At each stop, the tour sets up tents with literature, games and musical instruments. Two young men from Flint, Mich., operate the 48-foot tractor-trailer that hauls everything to the next state.

"I was in school, and I needed a break from that," said one of them, Mike Kirkwood. Mr. Kirkwood hears more of the anthem than he would prefer — "It haunts me," he said — but what drew him out of Flint might have made Key proud.

"I just wanted to see the country," he said.

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