On today, the 4th of July, national pride soars the highest when we hear the national anthem. ‘The Star- Spangled Banner’ is itself a 1814 mix up of American and British popular culture. The song was written by Francis Scott Key who was inspired after seeing the mighty British Royal Navy pounding Fort McHenery during the War of 1812.
The British were held off, but a popular London’s men’s club song by John Stafford would break through the national lines to serve as the musical foundation for what we know as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Being the nation on the move with an ever short attention span, the original song’s four stanza have been cut down to the one that is sung today. We more or less got the blessing to make ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ the official national anthem in the 1930’s by Woodrow Wilson.
Since that time the national anthem has become a staple to mark the beginning of major events. Called garbled and militaristic, its known as a difficult song to sing. Historically, its been rendered mostly by the book out of fear or respect due to the nation’s conservative values until more recent times. Other would be national songs have popped up from artist as diverse as Irving Berlin to Lee Greenwood, but ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ reigns supreme at events big and small.
During the 1960’s the song got its first makeover. It had become part Jimi Hendrix touring set by 1968, but really touched off a nerve when guitarist Jose Feliciano sang a slow bluesy version in 1968. The anthem had become politicized and some conservative members of the public were not happy. Even today you might hear the occasional conservative
hate AM radio talk show denouncing the colored stylistic touches to the national anthem.
The Star Spangled Banner would undergo other changes by being sung with stylistic embellishments. My first real memory of this change came with Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ styled rendition during the 1983 NBA All Star game. I still remember the fuss some students at my backwater high school made in response to the ‘Negro style” treatment that song got.
Since then flood gates of opportunity have opened and countless artists and performers have sung the anthem with their own stylistic bent. Some have either forgotten the lyrics or twisted them to make a point. Sufjan Stevens replaced the end with a observation on the stagnated political environment, while comedian Rosanne Bar poked fun at the mannerisms of male players during a San Diego Padres game in 1990.
The most popular and possibly the greatest rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is one that takes small liberties with the song’s structure, yet stays true to its spirit. Whitney Houston’s 1991 rendition for the Super Bowl XXV is considered one of the greatest national anthem performances in recent history.
Backed by a lush orchestra led by John Clayton, Whitney easily scaled the many vocal changes the song required while demonstrating the full range of her amazing voice. ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as pop hit had become a phenomenon as it peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Houston was the first to do it and the single would be her last top 10 hit before she died when it was re-released in 2001.
‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ continues to be performed in multiple styles and on some occasions scores a chart reaching hit for its performer. Even to this day few have manage to raise the bar and make the anthem their own as Houston did. Unfortunately many are trying and perhaps a bit too hard.