In my decade as a play-by-play broadcaster and sports reporter, I’ve covered more than 1,300 games in sports ranging from high school football to Major League Baseball. Every one of those games has been preceded by “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States of America. One season, I was responsible for selecting the national anthem singers for all the home games of a minor-league basketball team I worked for. I’m about as familiar with “The Star-Spangled Banner” as someone who’s never performed the song can be. Yet, I wonder why anyone would want to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a sporting event.
For starters, it’s a very difficult song to sing, which isn’t surprising when you consider that “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t originally designed to be sung. What we now know as our national anthem started off as part of a poem written by lawyer and author Francis Scott Key. The poem, titled “Defence of Fort McHenry,” was Key’s thoughts on a battle he witnessed during the War of 1812. [See guest blogger Jeb Middlebrook’s post “Prison Music: Containment, Escape, and the Sound of America” for more on the Star Spangled-Banner as a prison song.–Editor] Key’s brother-in-law noticed that the poem’s words could be set to the music of “The Anacreontic Song“, a popular English drinking song. Within weeks, Key’s words were printed in newspapers throughout the country, the name changed to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Although all four verses of Key’s poem were converted to song, only the first verse was designated as the official national anthem of the United States of America in 1931.
No one has pinpointed the first sporting event that had “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung before it. However, there’s evidence the song was sung both before and during Major League Baseball games while World War I was going on. During the first game of the 1918 World Series between the visiting Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs at Weeghman Park (known today as Wrigley Field), a band performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the seventh-inning stretch (“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was ten years old in 1918, but the Tin Pan Alley song had yet to become a seventh-inning stretch standard). It wasn’t until World War II when the national anthem was performed before every baseball game, an affirmation of the American spirit during such a difficult time.
It’s fitting that baseball was the first sport whose games were preceded by the national anthem; baseball’s status as America’s national pastime and as one of its defining cultural institutions was undisputed for most of the 20th century. Also, in the 1940s, professional basketball was just getting off the ground, professional football was barely 20 years old, and professional hockey was dominated by Canadians and only played in a handful of American markets. If the tradition of pre-game anthem singing had begun in one of those sports, it would’ve taken much longer to catch on, if it caught on at all. Eventually, all the other professional leagues followed baseball’s example.
When I was an account executive for the Yakima (Washington) Sun Kings of the Continental Basketball Association during their 2002-2003 season, my boss assigned me the responsibility of choosing our pre-game national anthem singers. Fortunately, it proved to be an easy task, since folks who were interested in singing regularly called the team’s offices, and as long as they could hold a tune I booked them. All I could give the singers were tickets to the game at which they were performing, but no one ever bemoaned the lack of compensation.
When I think about all of the games I’ve covered, I honestly can’t remember any vocal renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that stand out because of their greatness. However, I remember all of the terrible singers I’ve heard. There was the raven-haired woman in Keizer, Oregon who got halfway through the song, screwed up the lyrics and started over. There was a middle-aged man in Binghamton, New York who messed up the song’s pitch and pacing so badly, there was a good three seconds of stunned silence when he finished, followed by polite applause. There was the teenager in Kalamazoo, Michigan whose voice cracked every time she hit a high note. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So, you work your butt off to sing an extremely difficult song, you manage not to mess it up, you get some nice applause once you’re done and then you’re forgotten right after the first pitch. Singing the national anthem is a thankless job, yet there’s no shortage of people willing to do it.
When I think about the people who volunteered to sing at Yakima Sun Kings games, I don’t recall anyone who who looked at singing the anthem as a way to honor their country. There was one woman who lived an hour and a half away who volunteered her anthem-singing services to every professional and college team within three or four hours of her home. I asked her why she put in all this effort and she said “I just like to sing.” The one singer I rejected was an eight-year-old girl whose mother bragged over the phone about her daughter being such an outstanding singer that “she brings people to tears.” Her mother seemed to think singing the national anthem before about 3,000 people in the middle of nowhere would lead her daughter to stardom. I was out of the office when a CD arrived with 10 tracks and the young lady’s picture on the cover (her mother called the office twice to make sure her husband had dropped off the CD and that I had received it). I listened to the one track that featured her singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and I didn’t think it was very good; she had a nice voice but she was trying way too hard. Thankfully, I never heard from her mother again.
Other than that young lady (or, more accurately, her mother), none of the aspiring anthem singers I encountered seemed to be seeking stardom. Perhaps these singers were more patriotic than they – or I – realized. Perhaps they just wanted to cross an item off their bucket list. Or, they were big sports fans and relished an opportunity to go to a game free of charge. Maybe they just thought it would be a cool thing to do and a great way to gain the admiration of their family and friends; many people are petrified of doing anything in front of an audience and those who aren’t are often seen as heroic, even if their anthem singing is immediately forgotten.
However, the best way to get your rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be noticed and remembered is not to sing it but to play it on a musical instrument. Live instrumental performances of the national anthem are rare, so even an average instrumental rendition is more memorable than a great sung rendition. In my stint as national anthem booker for the Yakima Sun Kings, I encountered just one non-singer: a 13-year-old boy who taught himself how to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his saxophone. The amount of positive feedback I received from the fans on his rendition was easily double or triple the feedback on all the anthem singers combined; he was one of only two performers I booked for multiple games. When I lived in Binghamton, New York, my favorite national anthem performers were a pair of trumpeters; they played “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a variety of sporting events in the area. I still get chills when I think about the exceptional national anthem rendition performed by trumpeter Jesse McGuire – the former lead trumpeter for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New York City – prior to the seventh game of the 2001 World Series in Phoenix, Arizona, the only World Series I’ve covered.
Nowadays, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is far from the only song sung at many American sporting events. In games featuring teams from Canada (the NBA, MLB and NHL all have Canadian franchises), “O Canada”, the Canadian national anthem, is sung pre-game along with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “O Canada” is a much easier – and shorter – song to sing. Many baseball teams also recruit singers for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch. You don’t even have to sing as much as you have to lead the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and being an expert singer isn’t required. However, my guess is more people would rather sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” over anything else at a sporting event. Singers aren’t looking for easy or simple. They’re looking to showcase their talents singing a song we all learned growing up, a song we’ve heard countless others sing on big and small stages and a song that demands the utmost respect and importance requiring both fans and participants alike to stop what they’re doing and to salute the American flag.
Robert Ford is currently a reporter and radio pre- and post-game show host covering Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals. He has also been a radio play-by-play broadcaster for several minor league baseball, college and high school teams, allowing him to call places like Yakima, WA, Kalamazoo, MI and Binghamton, NY home at various points in his life. Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/raford3 and read his blog: http://radioguydiaries.wordpress.com/
We used our voices, whistles, and blow horns to make contact with those on the inside… Prisoners flickered the lights in their cells on and off throughout the building, banged on windows, and we could see the shadows of many of those on the inside waving and pumping fists. — Activists outside the Metropolitan Corrections Center, NYC, July 8, 2011
Noise demonstrations, like the one described above, occurred outside jails, detention centers, and prisons in cities like New York City, St. Louis, Oakland, Los Angeles, Montreal and Kitchener, Ontario throughout the weekend following July 4th, 2011. Activists rallied by playing music, chanting, launching flares and fireworks, and banging pots and pans– communicating their solidarity with the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, and their demand for justice for prisoners in each city. The noisy international demonstrations “connected local struggles against dehumanization to the California hunger strike and the conditions of the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit, as well as both the U.S. and Canada’s prioritization of policing and imprisonment over social welfare.” (San Francisco Bayview, 2011).
If music can be understood as “the organization of noise” (Attali, 1977), these audible signs of solidarity across prison walls would certainly be considered a form of music: prison music, perhaps. Prison has been a form of political organization for the United States, at least since the beginning of the 19th century; music (or organized noise) from or about prisons helps trace this history of containment sonically. Prison music also points to the possibilities of sonic and political escape from this carceral state.
The beginnings of the history of prison music in the United States can be traced to the War of 1812. A poet named Francis Scott Key met with British officers aboard a ship off the coast of Maryland to negotiate the release of American prisoners. He was detained overnight, having gained knowledge of the position of British military units and their plan to soon attack Baltimore. From detention in a ship floating on the Atlantic, Key watched the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry and reported at dawn to the prisoners below deck that he was still able to see the American flag waving.
He chronicled the experience in a poem titled, “In Defence of Fort McHenry,” and later put it to music with John Stafford Smith’s “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The title of Key’s poem changed in October of 1814 when a Baltimore actor performed the song in public and called it “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy designated “The Star Spangled Banner” as the official tune to be played at the raising of the U.S. flag, and in 1916 the song was declared the national anthem of the United States. Key’s experience in detention along with other American prisoners in the middle of the Atlantic was memorialized as the U.S. anthem, but it is rare, if ever, that the country’s ode to freedom is understood as its opposite – as an ode to unfreedom, as prison music. Set against contemporary examples of organized noise across prison walls, as well as examples of prison themes in U.S. popular music and culture, the U.S. national anthem can be understood as a beginning point for an American tradition of prison music.
Jimi Hendrix’s guitar version of “The Star Spangled Banner” allows us to see this dimension of the American anthem. Offering a scathing and raucous rendition of the national anthem at the 1969 Woodstock Festival off the heels of his song “Purple Haze,” Hendrix blurred the lines between a drug-induced delirium and the reality of U.S. containment, at home and abroad. Hendrix improvised on Smith and Key’s tune, allowing the notes and sounds to escape the page, and signified on the sonic and political constraints the song represented: major chords, patriotic lyrics, “American freedom.” In riffing on the national anthem, Hendrix perhaps released what was being held behind these classic American “bars”: the pain, the chaos, the possibility. Note the intervals bending from major to minor to major (harmony to disharmony and back again); the (song) structure being destroyed, re-formed, rebuilt anew; the reduction of the refrain to organized noise— sonic escapes in the forms of cries, screams, explosions. Here Hendrix’s performance fits into a trajectory of U.S. prison music by retooling the U.S. national anthem as a song of unfreedom, or perhaps, a different kind of freedom.
The relationship between prison and music in the United States can be heard most clearly through Black soundings of voice, tools, instruments, technology. Hendrix’s music, for example, represented another transnational trajectory of prison music arriving on U.S. shores from ships in the Atlantic, the genealogy of Black music. What began as tribal African songs remixed over plantation work in slavery conditions became field hollers, gospel, chain gang songs, work songs, the blues, jazz, country, rock, hip-hop. It is here that “logics of U.S. white supremacy”: slavery/capitalism, genocide/colonialism, Orientalism/war (Andrea Smith, 2008) coalesce and are rendered illogical, problematic, and questionable, simply (or not so simply) by their audibility. Take the following song, “Early in the Mornin’,” sung by Black prisoners in a 1940′s Mississippi work farm, as another example.
In this example of prison music, one hears sounds that confound the work that is being performed. The music makes the work illogical. It sounds like the work is not productive, at least not for the bodies performing it. This is destructive, or more precisely deconstructive, physical and sonic work: breaking down (song) structures, bodies, minds in the process. It is a sonic protest against imprisonment, even as prison labor is being performed. This is the sound of prison music, simultaneous containment and escape, and helps explain why prison (music) is so popular in the United States. Prison is a necessary function of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism– a necessary warehousing of surplus (bodies) for exploitation or elimination. Prison music is a documentation of this process. Listening to, and perhaps playing, prison music is our attempt to hear ourselves survive within these dehumanizing systems.
Prisons are popular in the United States, and not just in music (from anthems to work songs to blues to country to rock to hip-hop, imbued with the sounds and sights of prison). It’s the popularity and predominance of actual prisons, and the increasing rate of incarceration of U.S. residents, that undergirds the general public’s simultaneous aversion to, and fascination with, these literal echo chambers. Prisons in the United States are hyper-inaudible/invisible, and simultaneously hyper-audible/visible. The location of U.S. prisons behind distant, opaque, and quiet walls, sits strangely against the reality of prison as an increasingly intimate, transparent, and loud source of entertainment for the general public– think Cops (23 seasons), Law & Order (20 seasons), CSI (12 seasons), and Lockup (11 seasons), below.
Regrettably, sounds (musical or otherwise) from those incarcerated are rarely audible above the din of the prison spectacle in popular music, culture and policy. Jacques Attali wrote, “Music is a herald, for change is inscribe in noise faster than it transforms society…. Listening to music is listening to all noise.” The question is: when prisoners make noise, will we hear their music?
Jeb Middlebrook holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California, and is a Lecturer in Race, Social Movements, and Popular Culture at USC, University of Colorado–Colorado Springs, Loyola Marymount University, and People’s University, an online, low-cost college for first-time and returning students. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.
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