Monday, March 12, 2012

COLUMN: Anthem

For as long as I can remember, I've only had one modest wish in life:

To someday possess enough power to crush the hopes and dreams of the innocent in a display of pure malice and unbridled fury.

Well, it only took 41 years, but this weekend, my wish came true -- all thanks to the fine folks with the Quad City River Bandits organization. This past weekend, the Bandits held open auditions for national anthem singers for the 2012 baseball season, and guess who they picked to be one of their celebrity judges? (Hint: it wasn't Paula Sands.)

That's right: lil' ol' me. Well, and a handful of other colorful media folk. Truth be told, I couldn't believe it when I got the invite. I'm about the furthest thing from a "celebrity" you could possibly imagine. As I type this, it's a Sunday afternoon and I'm laying on my couch in a dirty t-shirt eating a microwaved burrito and watching NASCAR. I'm not exactly living the celebrity dream.

Still, it was a seriously cool invite and one that I couldn't turn down. After all, I'm a giant music nerd. Who wouldn't want the opportunity to become Simon Cowell for an afternoon? Let the other celebrity judges be all namby-pamby. Not this guy. I'm a journalist. My JOB is to tell it like it is. And if that meant informing some would-be aspiring singers that they suck eggs, so be it. They'd thank me one day for my honesty, I'm sure of it.

Just one problem: I'm a hopelessly nice person. And let's face it, if I were forced to sing a cappella in front of a firing line of judges, I'd be lucky to get the noise "eep" out, let alone a whole song. Just conquering your nerves and showing up to this thing was enough to merit a gold star in my book.

My fellow judges were all super nice people, too: Jay Kidwell from WHBF, Mark Manuel from WOC, and around half of Wicked Liz & the Bellyswirls. I'd guesstimate that we auditioned around 20 singers during my stay. They had to come in one-by-one and belt out the anthem while we stared them down. Most were decent, a few were downright great, and no one was truly awful.

That said, when one comes to an audition to sing the national anthem, one might want to take the time to get to know the words first. On more than one occasion, "O'er the land of the free" became "FOR the land of the free," at one point the broad stripes and bright stars were seen through "a pair of lost fights," and one person watched the flag gallantly streaming "over ram's parts," which I think infers that we're a country of devil worshippers so that's no good.

In the end, though, there were some real stars who ought to send shivers up your spine this summer at the ballpark. And honestly, EVERYONE did a better job than I could've, so I didn't really have a bad word to say the entire afternoon. But when you're trapped in a room with nothing to listen to but "The Star Spangled Banner" over and over again, you start to overthink the song a little bit.

For one, why did we choose an anthem that only about 10% of the nation's populace can sing without sounding like Roseanne Barr? You've got to have an octave-and-a-half range just to get through the thing. It's an awesome song that never fails to fill me with pride, but don't ever ask ME to sing it, because I'm simply not capable. You'd think that Francis Scott Key would have picked something a tad bit easier to set his poem to, but I suppose it would lose its grandeur a tad were it sung to the tune of "Mary Had A Little Lamb."

Instead, Francis Scott Key set his poem, then called "Defence of Fort McHenry," to the tune of an old British piece called "The Anacreontic Song." It was originally the official song of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th century London gentleman's club. The original lyrics were full of lines about "intwining the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus' wine." In other words, it was basically a drinking song, said to be so challenging that if you could sing it, you could have another round.

In today's world, we blow a cultural gasket every time P. Diddy steals a hook from an 80's tune for his next rap single, yet the entire tune of our national anthem was blatantly pilfered. Had this happened today, the Anacreontic Society would have sued us for copyright infringement, the RIAA would sue us for file sharing it, and Youtube would have mandatorily muted any videos of us singing it. Of course, before the "Banner," the closest thing we had to a de facto anthem was "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," which is itself stolen from "God Save the Queen" -- though in that case, I think it was less rip-off and more England-can-bite-us.

And why does our anthem end in a question? "O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?" Basically, it can be paraphrased as such: "Once upon a time, there were some good brave folks who were in a battle. I wonder if they won?" The image of our battered flag proudly flying through a hail of explosions is stirring and powerful, but shouldn't it end with "...and then we kicked their butts" or something a little more definitive than a question mark?

That was when I looked up the ENTIRE lyrics of "Defence of Fort McHenry" and the question gets answered. Did you know there are four verses to the "Star-Spangled Banner"? The other three make it clear there was butt-kicking aplenty going on. What happened to our enemies? The third verse explains:

"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."

Wow. Now THAT's a verse that would be outstanding for patriotism, not so good for tourism. I think we should switch over to the third verse every time our anthem gets played at the Olympics -- imagine the intimidation factor if America were to celebrate every gold medal win by mean-mugging the other countries while singing about sending them all to their gloomy graves.  

However, in the family-friendly confines of Modern Woodmen Park, methinks the traditional first verse will continue to do just fine. And I hope we did just fine helping to choose the next set of performers for this season. So just remember, if you're at the ballpark this summer and a singer wows you with their version of the anthem... you're welcome. And if you need my expertise to pre-approve any of your other entertainment needs, just say the word. I work cheap.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're a great writer! This was hilarious and informative.