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We the People: The national anthem was inspired by a moment of chaos (and it’s not so easy to perform)

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 2, 2021

By Jordan Tolley-Turner, Sophia McFarland</p><p>and Shafiq Moltafet The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s Question: What is the name of the national anthem?

As we gather to watch the Tokyo Summer Olympics, it is hard to miss the national anthem playing every time Team USA wins a gold medal .

The first five words, “O say can you see,” go along with what are perhaps the six most recognizable musical notes in American culture.

The words were written by attorney Francis Scott Key and inspired by a battle in the War of 1812.

Just a month after British forces charged at Washington, D.C., burning down the White House and other government offices, the British were trying to take Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

On Sept. 14, 1814, while detained aboard a British ship, Key watched the American flag rise in victory over British forces at the Battle of Fort McHenry. After 25 hours of constant bombardment by the British Navy, the United States successfully defended itself in what was one of the most crucial battles of the War of 1812.

“It seemed as though Mother Earth had opened and was vomiting shot and shell in a sheet of fire and brimstone,” Key said describing the British assault, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

The scene of those “broad stripes and bright stars” inspired Key to write a poem that eventually became the United States national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Key’s words gave new significance to a national symbol and started a tradition through which generations of Americans have invested the flag with their own meanings and memories.

Fort McHenry now is a national monument open to the public. The fort is on a broad finger of land, Whetstone Point, jutting east into the Patapsco River and holds a commanding position over waters that were critical to Baltimore’s success as a shipping and commercial center, according to a Spokesman-Review travel article from 2001.

The flag Key witnessed in 1814, known as the Great Garrison Flag, is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.

‘Everybody’s messed up the national anthem’

America’s national anthem is the quintessential patriotic piece, but for performers, it can be challenging.

Specifically, the national anthem requires very particular vowels and consonants, but the key is where most of the trouble comes into play.

The original key of the song is B-flat major. It requires a large range and bridges a singer’s passaggio – where there’s a transition to the higher part of a singer’s voice, according to Melody Chang, who has a degree in opera from Washington State University and is marketing director of the Inland Northwest Opera.

Normally performed a cappella, meaning sung without instrument accompaniment, the national anthem also has a reputation for performers struggling to regulate their voices alone and stay on key.

Abbey Crawford has been performing the national anthem for 32 years, including at Spokane Chiefs games and a 2016 Bernie Sanders rally. The song was written straight forward and that’s the way she performs it, but everybody has different interpretations, Crawford said, noting Whitney Houston’s renowned performance.

“If you’re going to sing it and you’re going to do runs, at least know that you’re still going to end up in the key where you started. I think that’s the most important piece and probably the hardest, because you have to really listen to yourself,” Crawford said. “You really want to make sure that whoever is singing your anthem can do well a cappella, because as a musician you don’t just get to change keys, you start in that key and you stay in that key.”

There are many variables to staying on key.

“If people are singing a cappella it is very hard, especially if you’re singing into a microphone and you can’t really hear yourself; it takes the highest level of efficiency to be able to sing anything and stay perfectly on key without the ability to hear yourself,” Chang said.

Location can have a big impact on the difficulty of performing it.

“If they’re singing at a baseball game or a public, outdoor venue it gets a lot more complicated because you really can’t hear yourself unless you’re being accompanied by a band or orchestra,” Chang said.

Chang also noted a specific difference in the anthem versus music of the modern era.

“There’s quite a number of larger intervals that we don’t normally see in today’s music. Pop music is very straight, within one octave, and is usually a lot more repetitive,” Chang said. “It requires a lot of range, more than songs that are usually performed today.”

Charlie Butts has been performing the national anthem on saxophone for 25 years, including at numerous Spokane Indians and Gonzaga basketball games.

“The problem with people singing it is that the range of notes is like an octave and a half, so you have to have a pretty good range to be strong on all of those notes for singing it,” Butts said. “On a saxophone it’s a little bit easier, but, of course, everything has to work.”

To Butts, playing the song with emotion is the most important part, and might be the most difficult .

“I try to play it sweetly because we need more sweetness and love,” Butts said. “To play something sweetly, you pull harder on the reed with your lip, and it requires a little more strength.”

Specific difficulties that come with singing it are when the crowd is ahead. Also, it’s essential to hit the powerful note at “land of the free” just right, according to Crawford.

“Well, you want the first note to work, that’s the first hurdle!” Butts said with a chuckle. “And there’s a register shift at the end of each verse, like ‘was still there’ for example. The ‘there’ is one of the lowest notes in the upper register, so it’s a little risky.”

Chang feels less nervous singing the national anthem compared to something like an audition.

“That’s the best thing about it being such a widely known song, everybody has heard it messed up,” Chang said. “There are so many videos out there of professionals that do this on a day-to-day basis, like pop singers, they’ve all messed up. Everybody’s messed up the national anthem.”

But for others, the anthem’s recognition is another complication.

“Because it’s one of the best-known songs and the most beloved by the nation, people are very peculiar about how you sing it,” Crawford said. “It’s not a simple song. It’s not overly difficult if you understand what you’re supposed to do with it, but it’s so well known that if you do it poorly, people will remember you doing it poorly. If you do it really well, people will remember that you do it really well. There’s no in between.”

And stemming back to vocal difficulty, the anthem is so well known that, with so many people singing along, potentially ahead or behind the performer, a musician must know where to place their voice at the start and finish, nice and powerful, according to Crawford.

“You can’t have anything go wrong with any of the notes because everybody knows the song and they can tell if you screw up,” Butts said.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”

“The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t designated as the national anthem until Congress voted to do so in 1931.

Key had written the words to be sung with the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which was written for the Anacreontic Society, a music club in London, about 1776, according to the New York Times.

It gained popularity through the Civil War and was adopted by the military for flag raising ceremonies.

Until 1931, other patriotic songs had more prominence.

In the late 1700s, “Yankee Doodle” was the unofficial anthem of American soldiers. British troops sang the rhyme to insult revolutionaries and assert Britain’s image. However, after the United States’ victory, soldiers reclaimed the tune and hoped it would become the nation’s anthem.

Katherine Lee Bates’ poem-turned-folk song, “America the Beautiful,” also enjoyed popularity. Despite rejection as the anthem by Congress in 1931, the John F. Kennedy administration unsuccessfully pushed for the replacement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with Bates’ song.

The “Star-Spangled Banner” has faced criticism, in part, because Key was an enslaver and because of the third stanza, which is largely unknown.

In 1814, Key described Africans in America as, “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”

The third stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is rarely sung. Key wrote, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”

“Essentially, Francis Scott Key was happy to see former slaves, who had joined the British as part of their Colonial Marines, getting slaughtered and killed as they attempted to take Baltimore,” Jason Johnson, Morgan State University associate professor of politics and journalism, told Public Radio International in 2016.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., proposed a measure in January that would make “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem, the national hymn and give it a place next to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Clyburn’s proposal would maintain “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem.

He told CNN that the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” would reflect the experiences of many Americans, not just African Americans.

“We should have one national anthem, irrespective of whether you’re Black or white,” Clyburn told USA Today. “So to give due honor and respect to the song, we ought to name it the national hymn.”

Elisha J. Mitchell is a local gospel vocalist and recording artist. She has performed both “The Star-Spangled Banner and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” since she was in eighth grade. She said both anthems describe struggles for liberty, but from different types of oppression.

When Mitchell sings the “Star-Spangled Banner,” she pictures herself at the scene Key illustrates.

“I gleefully see our flag waving,” she said. “The nostalgia is bittersweet, knowing America’s victory was not my own, yet, the flag is my hopeful reminder of what can be.”

When Mitchell sings the Black national anthem, she relates the song to her family’s experience.

“I see flashes of transactions between traders in Africa selling us to foreigners,” she said. “I see terrified people on a ship having no idea of the further hell they would endure.”

Mitchell said that she sees chains, maiming, lynchings, rapes and families torn apart.

“I see more but it’s making me sad to continue to recollect,” she said.

In regards to Clyburn’s proposal, Mitchell concluded, “These songs should each be given the honor deserved for the experiences they depict.”

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