Calling Every Voice

Former Portland Trail Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks became 13-year-old Natalie Gilbert's hero the night he stepped forward to join her in singing the national anthem when she forgot the words before a 2003 NBA playoff game. The incident struck a chord with people across the country and led to high praise for Cheeks' chivalrous act — perhaps because so many of us have been there.

Even though Americans are taught the "The Star-Spangled Banner" as children and it's heard frequently at public events, a recent Harris poll shows nearly two out of three adults don't know all the words.

One in three teenagers doesn't know the official name of the national anthem and fewer than 35 percent can name Francis Scott Key as its author, according to an NBC News survey.

These statistics trouble Steve Zielke, director of choral studies at Oregon State University.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" and the American flag it describes are both national symbols that can draw people together at a time when "it's tough to make Americans feel united," Zielke said.

It bothers him that people are often not given the opportunity to sing the anthem when it's played at sporting events or civic ceremonies.

The term national anthem implies that people will sing it together as a sign of their patriotism, Zielke said, "but for some reason it's become more of a performance piece instead.  During the Super Bowl, the national anthem has been completely ‘Hollywoodized.'  It's like a Las Vegas stage show now.  It functions as entertainment instead of something that draws us together," Zielke said.

He admitted he's always liked the electric guitar rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" performed by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, but that was an instance of a performer doing an interpretation of the music.  When it's done as a national anthem, it should be the standard version where people can sing along and feel a sense of cohesion, he said.

"There are very few things we can all do at the same time, and singing is one of them," Zielke concluded.

It doesn't matter whether people can sing well or not — there's just power in singing together as a sign of unity, Zielke said.  He noted how moved he was to see the entire U.S. women's soccer team, as well as American beach volleyball champions Misty May and Kerri Walsh, "belting out" the national anthem during awards ceremonies at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

"That was really encouraging to me," he said.

Zielke, president-elect of the Oregon Music Educators Association, hopes to do his part in promoting a multi-year effort launched by the Music Educators National Conference in March to combat "cultural and patriotic illiteracy."  The campaign, called the National Anthem Project, is designed to re-teach "The Star-Spangled Banner" to American citizens and emphasize the importance of singing it together.

Zielke would like to see the OSU athletic department instruct bands and individuals who perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" before athletic activities to ask fans to sing along with them.  Another idea would be to display the words of the anthem on the Jumbotron screen at Reser Stadium.

"We need to change people's thinking because I don't think people realize they're supposed to sing along.  I know when I sing out, people look at me like I'm weird," Zielke said.

When "The Star-Spangled Banner" was officially designated the national anthem in 1931, officials intentionally sought out the most common version of the song according to how most Americans liked to sing it, Zielke explained.  While doing research for his doctorate at Florida State University, he discovered War Department representatives were sent to various venues where the anthem was sung to record the words and rhythms people preferred.

For example, most public renditions use a syncopated rhythm at the beginning of the first phrase, "O-oh say, can you see," rather than the smooth, double eighth notes written into the musical composition.  That's how people want to sing it, Zielke said.

He acknowledges the anthem has critics, and even he agrees the song should be sung in a lower key.

"In hindsight, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner' might not have been the perfect anthem for speaking for all Americans at all times because it speaks of a war," Zielke said.

Still, people should know the history of the national anthem and realize how valuable it is as a symbol of our nation's perseverance and strength in the midst of battle, he said.

"It gives us hope."

Some interesting facts about "The Star-Spangled Banner":

• Francis Scott Key, a Maryland lawyer and volunteer with a light artillery company, wrote the words of the national anthem on the back of an envelope in 1814 after watching a 25-hour battle between American soldiers and British naval forces at Fort McHenry.  He was stunned and inspired to write his poem (originally titled "The Defense of Fort McHenry") after seeing the battered American flag still waving at sunrise.

• The tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is an old English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven," a suggestion that came from Key's brother-in-law, Judge J.H. Nicholson.

• President Woodrow Wilson ordered "The Star-Spangled Banner" to be played by the armed services at military occasions beginning in 1916.  In 1918, during a World Series baseball game, the band began an impromptu performance of the song during the "seventh inning stretch" and players and fans stood at attention to sing along, starting a tradition that continues today before games are played.  It was declared the national anthem by an act of Congress on March 3, 1931.

• Most public renditions of the anthem include just the first verse, but there are actually four verses to "The Star-Spangled Banner."

• According to the official "Code for the National Anthem of the United States of America," audiences are always to stand facing the flag or the leader when singing the anthem.  Outdoors, men are to remove their hats.  If convenient, the band or orchestra playing the national anthem should also stand.

— Source: The National Anthem Project

Complete lyrics: ‘The Star-Spangled Banner'

By Francis Scott Key

Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

By Carol Reeves
Gazette-Times reporter

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Star Spangled Banner
performed by Margie Harrell