The boundary was crossed in October 1968, before the fifth game of the World Series in Detroit between the Tigers and the Cardinals.
A young, blind pop singer from Puerto Rico, Jose Feliciano, sat on a stool near home plate, strummed his guitar and shocked the nation with his decidedly unconventional rendering of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
It had been a horrendous year of assassinations, riots, escalating war and racial and generational conflicts. The country was in turmoil. Feliciano’s national anthem angered traditionalists – there were reports of veterans throwing shoes at their television sets – but it captivated others. He later said he meant no disrespect; it was not interpreted that way in some quarters.
But like so many controversial firsts, this one paved the way for a whole new approach to the national anthem and other patriotic songs sung in athletic venues and at other public events. Before Feliciano, no one would have dreamed of adding his or her own innovative musical interpretation to “The Star Spangled Banner”; it was sung as everyone else sang it with strength, certitude and dignity. It was about the nation, not the performer.
Today it’s the exception, rather than the rule, for singers at high-profile sports events, and other gatherings, to sing the national anthem or other patriotic songs straight. Everyone has to put his or her own mark on it. The commercial artists asked to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America” these days usually approach it as they would a cover recording of an old song of somebody else’s: It’s got to be different, no matter how bad that difference turns out to be.
All this came to mind while watching the Major League Baseball All-Star game the other night. Pop singer Sheryl Crowe was OK with the national anthem; she actually came close to singing it straight and with dignity, though it hardly matched the authority of a classically trained soprano or baritone or tenor. And why does everyone have to sing it acappella these days?
But country singer Sara Evans’ rendition of “God Bless America” was, as is so often the case, whined and crooned and virtually yodeled with such self-absorption as to be a caricature of itself. To such singers, you want to say: Just sing the song. It’s endured for many years without your ridiculous embellishments, so spare us. It is not about you, hard as that may be to imagine.
Kate Smith must be turning over in her grave.
A couple of years ago, Julie Grisham – a young Tupelo High School graduate with a beautiful voice – sang “God Bless America” at a Community Development Foundation First Friday gathering. She sang it without personal interpretation or embellishment. She respected the heritage and the nature of the song, and in so doing produced a moving and meaningful experience for her listeners. It was so refreshing I felt compelled to thank her for using her wonderful talent to sing it straight.
It all gets to the purpose of singing these songs at public events. What’s it about? Is it to “honor America,” as the common introduction suggests, or is to spotlight the performer? More often than not, it seems to be about the latter – at least in the singer’s mind.
It’s one thing to record a different take on familiar patriotic songs. The great Ray Charles’ bluesy version of “America the Beautiful” had its own strength and dignity, complete with a unique and personal interpretation, and it’s a favorite of mine. But experimentation in recording and performing such songs is different, it seems, from a singer whose job it is to lead a corporate recognition of our national allegiance and our common loyalty at public events.
The singers who are best for that, unfortunately, aren’t usually celebrities, and our obsession with celebrities will carry the day when these choices are made, as in the All-Star game. A small annoyance, perhaps, but such small things can both reflect and shape attitudes.
If honoring America at public events is all about how long I can drag out the focus on me, that’s an attitude problem in the making.
It’s simple. The singers should just sing the song and let the theatrics go. That’s the best way to honor America.
Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.