Tuesday, June 30, 2009

National Anthem Hoopla

Jimi Hendrix's performance of the National Anthem was and is one of the more significant and more scandalous arrangements. But it was by no means the first, or the last. Like the flag, the National Anthem is thought of as a kind of sacred relic. Attempts to try to spruce it up, or draw it into an artist's personal style, have been met with hysterical outcry.

The words for "The Star Spangled Banner" have been around since the War of 1812. Francis Scott Key wrote them in 1814, inspired by the huge American flag flying in the morning over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, a sign that the fort had not fallen to the British during the night of battle. The poem, including two additional verses that nobody sings, was later set to a pre-existing tune by English composer John Stafford Smith, a song he had titled "Death and Victory (The Anacreontic Song)". That song was a popular tavern ballad honoring the fall of Admiral Nelson in battle.

"The Star Spangled Banner" was a hit and remained popular for decades. At the first World Series of Baseball, in 1917, it was used to honor the soldiers in World War I, boosting its popularity. On March 3, 1931 Congress made it the official national anthem.

In 1944, the Boston Symphony Orchestra did NOT perform an arrangement by Igor Stravinsky that featured some light touches of the composer's modern harmonies. Legend has it that he was arrested for the performance, but this is apparently not true. There was a law on the books in Massachusetts that prohibited reharmonizations of the National Anthem and for that reason, he was advised not to have it performed. Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schönberger tell the story that Stravinsky was arrested in Boston for an earlier performance. The mug shot at left accompanies the article in their book. The arrangement is lovely, but hardly offensive in any way. Stravinsky no doubt thought of it as a way to show his loyalty to his new country. He was awarded citizenship in 1945.

In 1968, a year before Hendrix's performance, Jose Feliciano shocked a crowd at a ball game and on national TV with a rendition in his own, Latin-inflected blues style. His career suffered from the angry censorship of "patriotic" disc jockeys and radio stations.

But Hendrix's version was different. It was deliberately provocative, where the others were accidentally so. It understood as a protest. To be more precise, it was aimed at an audience who were generally opposed to the ongoing war in Vietnam. Beyond his target audience, many reacted as they did to Feliciano, assuming that this music meant Hendrix was "un-American." But that's a ludicrous charge that was labeled at every hippie who ever disagreed with The Establishment, as the government and corporate powers were then known.

Importantly, Hendrix's rendition is an extremely powerful musical expression all on its own, music that allows for a multifaceted interpretation. Feliciano and Stravinsky created beautiful interpretations of the National Anthem. But Hendrix's was searing, provocative, raw and virtuosic. As a consequence, it will likely be discussed for decades to come, if not centuries.

More about the performance itself in an upcoming post.


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