• The National Anthem



    Super Bowl week is now officially upon us, and I have the distinct honor of kicking off our coverage here at Football Pros. It is very possible that I am alone in my interest of this subject, and I’m sure I’m on a pretty big island when it comes to musical taste, but I know that we have an extremely varied interest in music on this site, so let’s give this a shot. Ladies and gentlemen, our National Anthem.



    THAT my friends, is how it is done.

    As you may or may not know, one of my major pet peeves involves the performance of the Nation's Anthem prior to a sporting event. Too often times, major sporting events will, for selfish purposes, have The Star Spangled Banner performed by the "flavor of the month" and it almost always ends in a pretty extraordinary fail. But before I get to the roots of that, a little backstory is in order.

    Originally written in September of 1814 as a poem by Francis Scott Key, the anthem was adapted a few days later by his brother-in-law to fit the tune of "The Anacreontic Song", which was a popular melody written by English composer John Stafford Smith. Although we typically only focus on the first stanza, The Star-Spangled Banner actually has a total of 4 stanzas with a 5th added at the beginning of the Civil War. The Banner quickly rose in popularity throughout the 19th century, becoming a staple at 4th of July celebrations. In 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy signed an order making the Star-Spangled Banner the official tune played at the raising of the flag. Then, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that the Banner be played at military and other appropriate occasions. However, the Star-Spangled Banner was not actually introduced into law as the official anthem of the United States until President Herbert Hoover signed it into law in 1931.

    There is evidence that shows that the song was first performed at a sporting event as early as 1897 during baseball Opening Day ceremonies in Philadelphia. In 1898, at the Polo Grounds in New York City, it was performed more regularly. The song was also played during the 7th inning stretch of the 1918 World Series, but the tradition of performing the National Anthem prior to every baseball game didn't start until World War II. Now, of course, the National Anthem is performed prior to every American sporting event.

    In 1968, prior to game 5 of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers, Jose Feliciano (of Feliz Navidad fame) performed the National Anthem. His bluesy rendition, which is attached below, is regarded as the first contemporary rendition of the song, and created great controversy at the time. However, Feliciano’s performance soon made its way onto the Billboard charts, the first ever rendition of the Anthem to do so, and paved the way for the performances that we hear today.



    Around that same time, Jimi Hendrix was starting to perform the Anthem as a part of his regular set list with his most famous performance coming during the Woodstock festival in 1969.



    These performances were seen at the time as a protest against the Vietnam War, but soon became commonplace across both the sports and National landscape.

    As it applies to the Super Bowl, the performance that is generally regarded above all others was done by Whitney Houston, prior to Super Bowl XXV in January of 1991. The Super Bowl was being played under the backdrop of the Gulf War, which had begun just 10 days earlier. While Houston made a change to the Anthem that has become far too common (changing the rhythmic meter from its standard ¾ time to 4/4 time), she set the bar by which all future performances of the Anthem would be judged, proving that it does not take forced creativity to make the National Anthem memorable. It simply takes a truly great performer that’s confident enough to let the melody speak for itself.



    The National Anthem is a very difficult song for most people to adequately perform. The necessary range to sing it requires a full octave and a 5th, with many choosing (typically unwisely) to push it to a full 2 octaves. Most human voices struggle with a range that wide. To compensate, many will gargle the lower tones that occur early in the song so that they can belt out the higher notes later on. But what’s compounded that even further is that many pop singers are now substituting an actual ability to confidently belt a melody with an over-abundance of melodically incorrect - and often illegible - runs that completely disregard the intended rhythm of the song, and destroy any semblance of a steady tempo. This musically incorrect, sloppy, lazy and overly-showy practice of putting self over song turns many a performance into a complete embarrassment.

    There are certain standards that should be upheld for a performance of the National Anthem. If performed by a marching band, it should always be done in the original ¾ meter, and be performed in the 112-120 beats per minute range. If being performed by a solo artist, a few more liberties may be taken, such as a slight drop in tempo, along with just a few distinctive traits, but for the most part, the melody should be respected. The best vocalists/musicians are the ones who are confident enough in their own abilities to allow the melody to be the star.

    That’s what made Jesse McGuire’s performance in Charlotte so good. His performance was unique, dynamic, full of musical confidence, and it never once wavered from respecting the melody. His tone was incredible, to the point that he barely needed the microphone they gave him. At the same time, he maintained a style all his own.

    I do have a bit of a personal perspective on this subject as well. I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play the National Anthem many times as the member of a band from junior high through college. I’ve also conducted it on a number of occasions. I’ve even performed it twice prior to minor sporting events in front of a few thousand people. My first solo experience was singing the National Anthem while in High School prior to a sold-out girls hoops game between local rivals (our gym held about 5000- girls b-ball was huge in our area, both teams were perennial PA powers). It was relatively minor, but fun since I got a little run from the play-by-play guy, who happened to have graduated with my mom. My second solo experience was a few years ago at a minor league baseball game. I performed America The Beautiful on trumpet. That experience was pretty exhilarating and was a bucket list thing that I sort of got to cross off (performing at a major league venue would officially cross that thing off). Performing on an instrument like the trumpet does add a little flair, so the pop that I got at the end of it was a pretty big rush.

    Obviously, I’m nowhere near the level of vocalist/musician as the people we see performing prior to major sporting events. The level of talent/confidence/skill to pull off what McGuire did can’t be overstated. But as a person who has studied and now teaches music, I have a cultivated, albeit somewhat pompous idea as to how performers can properly respect the song that is our Nation’s Anthem. My hope was that for this Super Bowl, the NFL would get it right and give us an actual musician or vocalist that understands the concept of music theory, and would perform the Anthem in its most proper and dramatic form. While I selfishly feel that the NFL missed a great opportunity to bring on a staple musician of the NYC music scene, like Wynton Marsalis, I must give them kudos for finding the next best option. Performing this year will be world-renowned soprano Renee Fleming. Based on what I know of Ms. Fleming, we are all in for a real treat.



    Maybe I'm alone, but that's straight awesomeness.

    And if that’s not your cup of tea, then perhaps we can at least agree that it will be better than this…


    Comments 31 Comments
    1. Patrick Sullivan's Avatar
      Thanks for the work on this, Brian. Excellent read.
    1. darvon's Avatar
      What no Rosanne?

      I was in town for Feliciano. It was a big stink. But my mom liked it, so what's the big deal.

      And, as my Mom said, "Hey, he's blind. Give him some slack."
    1. SpartaChris's Avatar
      I agree, this is fantastic!

      I think my favorite rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" is the one performed by Jim Cornelison before Blackhawks games. I love the intensity and emotion he brings, making it sound bold and powerful, rather than pompous and fluffy. I just love it.
    1. wxwax's Avatar
      Thanks for the Feliciano link. I had never heard about his rendition.

      I think that technically, Hendrix was first in both date and controversy, though, wasn't he? His performance was in August, and Game 5 of the World Series was in October. Or are you only counting Hendrix from whenever the Woodstock record and movie came out? Certainly going forward, the Hendrix version is the one which has endured.

      That trumpet you played at the beginning, does he changes octaves halfway through? If so, is that considered cheating? It certainly was rousing! The Whitney Houston versions kicks butt. I like the way she respected the final notes, more or less.

      A couple of personal thoughts. One, there's nothing quite like being an American living abroad and hearing the national anthem. It's very powerful.

      Two, I would actually prefer America the Beautiful as our national anthem. I think it's a more emotive song. The God talk in the lyrics is a drawback, since it doesn't reflect our multiculturalism, but the music is fantastic.
    1. Ragar's Avatar
      Rule Number 1 of singing/performing the anthem is that it has to be live for sporting events. Whitney Houston's rendition, and almost all singings done at major sporting events, are pre-recorded and lip-synched, with no live mic or live musical instruments.

      When this is done, it's blasphemous. The reasoning is always "sound" in that they "want no mistakes", because it is a "hard" song..however if they are going pre-recorded, don't bother going out there.

      Pre-recorded is not "live" and I don't care how great you sang it in the studio when it could be altered and resung to your hearts content.
    1. Patrick Sullivan's Avatar
      Was it ever actually revealed that Whitney's rendition was pre-recorded?

      Also, who did the anthem last year? I seem to remember hearing about Beyonce Knowles. But I also heard something about Alicia Keys (whom I adore, BTW).

      I happen to think the trumpet player was live. Just my $0.02.
    1. Trumpetbdw's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by wxwax View Post
      Thanks for the Feliciano link. I had never heard about his rendition. I think that technically, Hendrix was first in both date and controversy, though, wasn't he? His performance was in August, and Game 5 of the World Series was in October. Or are you only counting Hendrix from whenever the Woodstock record and movie came out? Certainly going forward, the Hendrix version is the one which has endured. That trumpet you played at the beginning, does he changes octaves halfway through? If so, is that considered cheating? It certainly was rousing! The Whitney Houston versions kicks butt. I like the way she respected the final notes, more or less. A couple of personal thoughts. One, there's nothing quite like being an American living abroad and hearing the national anthem. It's very powerful. Two, I would actually prefer America the Beautiful as our national anthem. I think it's a more emotive song. The God talk in the lyrics is a drawback, since it doesn't reflect our multiculturalism, but the music is fantastic.
      Hendrix at Woodstock was August of 69, Feliciano was October of 68. Hendrix did originally add his rendition in the fall of 68 to his set list. Whether or not that predates Feliciano I'm not sure, but the Feliciano version was the first public contemporary performance.

      If done correctly, The Star-Spangled Banner is very good. But we've become accustomed to so many bad renditions, on top of its lyrical challenges, that it often leaves us feeling flat. But I agree with you, I'm a big fan of America The Beautiful.

      The trumpet does go up the octave at "was still there", which in my view, is lyrically accurate. One thing that's never made sense to me is how the peak of the song crescendos into a melody that drops by a 6th. It's musically awkward. But when McGuire took that part up the octave, he stayed there. It's a way (if you can do it) to add drama and power without compromising the melody. It's not cheating at all, it's just significantly adding to the degree of difficulty- something he did with remarkable ease. But as a lead player for both Tower of Power and the Lincoln Center Jazz at various points in his career, he's certainly proven he has the chops.

      The only issue I have with Whitney's version is that it's in 4/4 time, adding an extra beat to every measure. The song was written in 3/4, although more contemporary versions are occasionally written in 4/4. It completely changes the style, but I'll certainly give her credit in that she made it work better than anyone else. Really, by the end of it, I'm completely over that very minor gripe.

      I feel like this year's version will have a chance to be the best one we've heard since Whitney performed 23 years ago.
    1. Ragar's Avatar
      There's actually a huge wiki in regards to Houston's Star Spangled Banner, in which it get's into all the background and various controversies that occurred -> withholding royalty payments to the orchestra, lip-synch, etc.

      And yes it was 100% pre-recorded, and that particular wiki goes a little into Hudon's pre-recording, etc. with the requisite "denial" of knowing she wasn't live (uhm if you pre-record it, you know it ain't going out live)

      It's actually pretty fascinating to go through the history of that where the executives weren't sure of the 4/4 and wanted her to re-record it in 3/4, but she refused.
    1. wxwax's Avatar
      Thanks for the correction on my Woodstock date. I'm sure you're right that Felciano was the first. Who knows, maybe Hendrix got the idea from him?

      I know next to nothing about music, but I do often enjoy covers of my favorite songs that differ from the original. I was blown away when I heard a symphony orchestra play Beatles tunes, for example. If Whitney changed the timing, it didn't bother me.

      I hope the anthem doesn't become a crusty old relic which must only ever be performed one way. I think that is now the case with God Save the Queen, you don't hear many alternative versions of it. You might say that screwing around with the Star Spangled Banner is a metaphor for the vitality of this country when compared to Rumsfeld's "Old Europe."




    1. Nancy's Avatar
      Fascinating stuff, Brian. Thanks for a interesting and enlightening read! I am of the generation that grew up with AM Top 40 radio, and I love low-rent pop/rock/folk music...no pretensions to good taste here...but I really loathe hearing untrained pop singers--the "flavor of the month," as you said, torture the Anthem. I don't even like the Whitney Houston version, though I do like the Jimi Hendrix version for some reason (and yes, he did perform it many times prior to Woodstock).
      I loved Jessie McGuire's performance, and I'm good with pretty much any marching band performance. I think they've got it right this year in NY. Opera is not my cup of tea, but the singers are so incredibly well-trained and they know how to perform in a very large venue. Their talent speaks for itself, so there's no silliness required. Should be good.

      many pop singers are now substituting an actual ability to confidently belt a melody with an over-abundance of melodically incorrect - and often illegible - runs that completely disregard the intended rhythm of the song destroying any semblance of a steady tempo. This musically incorrect, sloppy, lazy and over-showy practice turns many a performance into a complete embarrassment.
      You can say that again. I blame Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
    1. Patrick Sullivan's Avatar
    1. Trumpetbdw's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by Patrick Sullivan View Post
      Was it ever actually revealed that Whitney's rendition was pre-recorded? Also, who did the anthem last year? I seem to remember hearing about Beyonce Knowles. But I also heard something about Alicia Keys (whom I adore, BTW). I happen to think the trumpet player was live. Just my $0.02.
      Yes, hers was pre-recorded. And that does take away from it, although it was still a very powerful rendition.

      Keys did the Anthem, Beyoncé did halftime.

      Trumpet was 100% live. Really REALLY tough to lip sync that.

      Remember, I took classes with musicians, vocalists, and "singers". Most singers think they're vocalists-- they're not. Vocalists are few and far between, and are basically musicians with their voices. Bobby McFerrin is a vocalist. Harry Connick Jr is a vocalist. Renee Fleming is a vocalist.

      Singers were the ones we made fun of in class because of how clueless they were to anything regarding music theory. Honestly, the musical understanding of nearly every singer out there is pathetic. It's why, after a number of years away, I'm watching some American Idol this year. It's pretty hilarious to watch Harry, who forgets more about music in a day than JLo has learned in her lifetime, school she and Keith Urban on improper use of terminology, and how a sloppy use of a run is only done when a singer has no clue how to distinguish themselves with the melody.

      That is the biggest way people cheat the system in music. They think they're Mariah Carey, but never actually establish a melody, mainly because they can't.

      Lastly, on the Anthem. The challenge is to perform it properly, you have to go in with the understanding that it's a song that's much bigger than you. Then, you have to be humble enough to not make the performance about you. At the same time, you have to make it personal enough to where you add just enough of your own style, while never compromising the integrity of the melody. That allows you to keep the spirit of the song, without it ever turning stale.

      I had a big problem with this song until I realized that it was the singers that ruined it for me as opposed to the song itself. But when done properly, it is every bit of what an anthem honoring our nation should be. However, performers struggle getting past the "humble yourself" part, partly because they've never had the confidence to simply belt the melody with their own flair.

      Aretha Franklin is a great example of someone confident enough to execute this song in a perfectly unique way.
    1. Trumpetbdw's Avatar
      Attachment 1022
    1. Trumpetbdw's Avatar
      By the way, thank you for the comments and for reading. I wasn't sure how an article like this would go over, so I appreciate that some of you seem to have enjoyed my perspective. This is a topic I've wanted to research/write about for a long time.
    1. ScottDCP's Avatar
      It was the first song I ever sang to my daughter, in large part because I can only song three songs without accompaniment. That is not to say I song any of them well or even accurately, just that I can remember the words in order without additional auditory cues.

      I agree that it is usually butchered by the popsters. My experience has been that minor league versions are a safer bet for quality, using singers with some ability who take it seriously.

      Side note: What is Daft Punk?
    1. wxwax's Avatar
      I don't know about runs, singing and vocalizing. But I do know what I like in my art: passion. What's great about Whitney Houston's version is the passion she puts in it.

      If the opera singer delivers a technically perfect but passionless performance, she's not going to move anyone. I hope she finds a way to do both. One thing's for sure, Trumpet's ensured that I don't skip by the anthem this year as I usually do.
    1. Trumpetbdw's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by wxwax View Post
      I don't know about runs, singing and vocalizing. But I do know what I like in my art: passion. What's great about Whitney Houston's version is the passion she puts in it.

      If the opera singer delivers a technically perfect but passionless performance, she's not going to move anyone. I hope she finds a way to do both. One thing's for sure, Trumpet's ensured that I don't skip by the anthem this year as I usually do.
      The more focus you take off of the melody, the more focus you try to put on yourself. Whitney was true to the song in every sense of the word, other than my one admittedly very minor and dorky critique.

      I agree with you about passion in a performance. It's all about putting your heart and soul into it. If you don't, eventually you'll be exposed. Early Whitney was desperate in her performances, and that's what made them so great.

      I don't think we'll have any issue with a lack of passion from Renee Fleming. Opera singers are forced to feel a genuine emotion and passion when performing, very similar to any actor that emmerses themselves within a specific role. Really, opera isn't exactly my cup of tea either. I certainly have an appreciation for it, and there are some vocalists who blow me away, but it's certainly not like I'm going to be throwing an opera on the radio when going on a long drive. I'm much more of a jazz guy, though. My favorite musician ever, as I still pay tribute to him with my avatar, is Maynard Ferguson. I heard him for the first time when I was 12. Everything about his performances are genuine, and filled with high-octane passion. We trumpet players are a very different, and often times arrogent breed. Maynard is one of the very few I've ever seen who has actually brought down a house literally full of trumpet players (yes, there's an international conference specifically set up for only trumpeters). That only happens with a genuine, vulnerable, passion-filled performance. At the same conference a few years ago, I saw another world-renowned jazz musician, Nicolas Payton. He gave the most uninspired concert I've ever heard, and by the end of his show, 75% had left, and the rest basically booed him off the stage. We saw right through him, and quite frankly, he's better than that.

      One of the toughest things to do is to maintain a love for what you do after years and years of the same old same old. With Maynard, Wynton Marsalis, and a number of others, there's an unbridled joy that has never left. It's evident in every performance, and that's what makes them stand out. The same is true with a number of the bands any of us get into, and it's why bands like the Allman Brothers, Phish, Dave Mathews, etc all have such a loyal following.

      I get the criticism posted earlier in the thread by Ragar about the idea of lip syncing a performance. I agree that I'm more impressed with someone who will belt it out live. But when including full orchestration as she did, and being the perfectionist that she is, it can be very difficult to put that together on a live hit and run stage. But Whitney was not Brittney Spears, or any number of these other fakers. She has the chops, and if it had been a show, with a stage set up for her, there would have been no need to lip sync. Do I wish she had done it live? Yup. And the rawness of the performance may have been good. But it was also risky, so I get why she decided to eliminate the risk. It made her look bad to some, but I found it to be understandable in that circumstance. Let's face it, with the war as a backdrop, it HAD to be perfect. So I'll call her decision flawed but forgiveable.
    1. wxwax's Avatar
      It's interesting that you cite jazz as being passionate. I think I'm very much in the minority when I say that I've never felt it. In fact, that's why I don't care for most jazz. To me it feels technical, abstract, esoteric - anything but emotional. I prefer the rawer emotion of the blues. For my taste, jazz is to blues what Bach is to Beethoven. Bach rarely moves me, Beethoven almost always does. (Not that I'm any kind of classical music expert, mind you!)
    1. Trumpetbdw's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by wxwax View Post
      It's interesting that you cite jazz as being passionate. I think I'm very much in the minority when I say that I've never felt it. In fact, that's why I don't care for most jazz. To me it feels technical, abstract, esoteric - anything but emotional. I prefer the rawer emotion of the blues. For my taste, jazz is to blues what Bach is to Beethoven. Bach rarely moves me, Beethoven almost always does. (Not that I'm any kind of classical music expert, mind you!)
      Just like with anything, it all depends on who you listen to. Jazz is more feeling and improvisational than it is technical.

      I agree on the difference between Bach and Beethoven, but part of that is that they were from very different eras. Bach was the key historical figure of the Baroque era, while Beethoven was born 20 years after Bach died, and helped transition from the Classical to the Romantic era. For our purposes, yes it's all classical, but they are very different styles. Most of Bach's work was with the harpsichord.

      Interestingly, during that age, Bach wasn't even the most popular composer in his own family. That was actually his brother, CPE Bach.
    1. ScottDCP's Avatar
      Quote Originally Posted by wxwax View Post
      It's interesting that you cite jazz as being passionate. I think I'm very much in the minority when I say that I've never felt it. In fact, that's why I don't care for most jazz. To me it feels technical, abstract, esoteric - anything but emotional. I prefer the rawer emotion of the blues. For my taste, jazz is to blues what Bach is to Beethoven. Bach rarely moves me, Beethoven almost always does. (Not that I'm any kind of classical music expert, mind you!)
      I hate hate hate jazz. Elevator jazz, anyway. Gypsy jazz can be awesome. Italian, too. Funk all day (real funk, not that Maceo Parker nonsense.)