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We Have Sung It in Many Languages

From talk radio to the presidency, agitated Americans have expressed anger over the "desecration" of the Star Spangled Banner when undocumented residents sing it in Spanish. In the past, the anthem's translation into a foreign language was the least of the infamies that dismayed purists.The flap created by the Spanish language version is just another opportunity to bash immigrants who happen to be from the wrong countries.

The anthem for over a century has been cheapened, insulted and even besmirched by well intentioned but misguided Americans who think they can improve on the melody. Such conduct - except when it touches the immigration question - is now generally ignored, sometimes encouraged.

Although President George Bush argues that the national anthem should only be sung in English, performing it in a foreign language isn't novel. Wikipedia, that all-knowing Internet site, reports that German and Latin translations appeared in the 1860s, followed by Yiddish and French versions. The U. S. Bureau of Education printed it in Spanish in 1919 for widespread use. In those more idyllic days immigrants demonstrated their love for their new home by joyfully singing the anthem in their native tongue.

Other versions of the anthem left the words alone but altered the melody, in one case so drastically that it got the composer/conductor in trouble. When Igor Stravinsky raised his baton in Boston in 1944 you would have thought he was Roseanne Barr. A dutiful audience began to sing but, according to one report, as the strange and dissonant notes continued "eyebrows lifted, voices fluttered and the singing stopped."

Boston authorities warned Stravinsky that he was afoul of a state law that forbade rearrangement of the anthem. Music critic Albert Goldberg noted Stravinsky's version was banned in Boston and booed in Baltimore, but he escaped sanctions.

But not Karl Muck, who also conducted in Boston. His sin was not that he wrote a discordant arrangement of the tune. He didn't play it at all.

In 1918 the German native allegedly refused to lead the orchestra in a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Muck claimed that the piece was left off the program because musically it was not in accord with the serious compositions scheduled. The popular feeling was that he was pro-German. Arrest and deportation followed.

Despite the danger, Stravinsky's arrangement paved the way for a multitude of variations. Today the web holds hundreds of anthem recordings, many of them unorthodox versions of the traditional melody.

The "Star-Mangled Banner" website spotlights Jimi Hendrix' Woodstock electric guitar version, Jose Feliciano's "slow, bluesy" World Series rendition, and Marvin Gaye's 1983 NBA All-Star "soul and funk interpretation." And who can forget Roseanne Barr's interpretation at a San Diego baseball game, complete with off-key screeching and mannerisms mocking ball players?

Fortunately, Charles Ives confined his genius to variations on "America." But Carla Bley's "National Anthem" runs on for over 20 minutes, with bits of the original melody fading in and out. Talk radio is undisturbed by her blasphemy.

So how should it be played and sung? William Santelmann, long-time director of the Marine Corps Band, insisted that it be performed as written, without embellishments. Edwin Franko Goldman called for an official, government approved arrangement, played without frills from written notes. Both insisted on a uniform tempo, a plea almost universally ignored.

Their way was tried - once. In 1918, before Congress had made the anthem our official hymn, a committee approved the B flat arrangement that has plagued nearly everyone who ever tried to sing "the rockets red glare." It was adopted by the military and became standard sheet music for school bands. The War Department's Bureau of Public Relations issued a statement that "extraneous notes and florid embellishments are not necessary, nor in good taste."

But the difficulty with the B flat version persisted, and daring singers continued to add higher, unwritten notes ending "land of the free." During WWII the military officially accepted the A flat version, erroneously referred to as the "easy-to-sing" arrangement.

The next time a would-be singer desecrates the Star Spangled Banner on amateur night at the local ball park, will those who today express outrage at the audacity of a Spanish language version be as incensed? At least the Spanish version has kept the original tune and in fact has resulted in a more melodic quality utilizing the beauty of the language to create a pleasurable listening experience which many modern English versions fail to accomplish. It's shameful that the anti-immigrant crowd uses the nation's anthem to promote its xenophobic agenda.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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