Friday, July 4, 2014

Of Thee I Sing... and Sing Again

This is an updated version of my blog originally dated Monday, July 03, 2006

I grew up in Pasadena, California, home of the Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl Game, the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Garden, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory --- and one kicking Fourth of July fireworks show.

Pasadena’s celebration of Independence Day is one of California's biggest. It is held in a stadium big enough to hold a hundred thousand people, with thousands watching from their picnic locations in neighboring Brookside Park and many more enjoying the display from their homes all around the Arroyo. It’s a great show, always featuring a band and singers performing patriotic tunes, but growing up, we thought it was much more enjoyable to look out at the fireworks than straight up at them.

After a time or two of going to the festivities in person, we rarely went to the Rose Bowl to see the show.

Instead, my parents would prepare a big barbecue at home and, after the meal, we would light sparklers and watch the white hot embers fade as they fell onto the brick patio. Then the five of us kids would go up to the second floor and wait for the sky to light up in the distance. We knew where to look, but the hero of the night would be the first one to point and shout, “Hey! It’s starting! Look over there!”

I’ll never forget those hot July nights, stuffed to the eyeballs with hot dogs and potato salad, the smell of sweet ripe watermelon still on our fingers and then, at last, a spectacular light show, just before the dreaded call “Children, bedtime!”

Waiting in the gathering darkness, we’d provide music of our own, singing a few of the patriotic songs we’d learned in school: “Yankee Doodle,” “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and my favorite, “America the Beautiful.” None of us ever tried to sing the national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner” --- with its sweeping range and difficult transitions, it didn’t sit comfortably on our tongues.

As I grew older and began to appreciate the cost of war, I wondered why our national song was a war hymn that ended with a question.

-Photo from The Smithsonian

Star Spangled Banner

Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

- Words from the poem "In Defense of Fort McHenry", written by Francis Scott Key, September 20, 1814. Sung to the tune of the drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” attributed to the British composer John Stafford Smith.

“The Star Spangled Banner” has been popular since its composition during the War of 1812, when Francis Scott Key wrote a poem commemorating the moment he saw the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry the morning after a battle with the British forces.

According to The Star Spangled Banner and The War of 1812 from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the words and music were first performed together at the Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore on October 19, 1814. During that century, the SSB became one of the country’s most beloved patriotic songs.

The song endured throughout the Civil War as a way for Americans to express love of country and, along with "Yankee Doodle" and "Hail Columbia," it was played on most patriotic occasions. By the end of the century, the military was using the song for official ceremonies and playing it at the raising and lowering of the colors.

The National Museum of American History continues:

“Meanwhile, patriotic organizations had launched a campaign to have Congress recognize ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as the U.S. national anthem. After several decades of attempts, a bill making ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ our official national anthem was finally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Herbert Hoover on March 3, 1931.”

It’s sometimes hard for me to hear the SSB without saying “Play ball!” in my head as the notes fade away, and I have discovered that there is a reason for that.

During the World Series of Baseball in 1918, the song was performed in honor of the troops fighting in the Great War. This was the first time it was played at a sporting event. It was a spontaneous moment and it was reported to have been deeply moving. It became a staple of every ball game, at first played during the seventh inning stretch, but formally adopted during World War II as the way to open every major league baseball game. I have some great memories of going to games at Dodger Stadium, singing rousing, off-key renditions of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and that other fun baseball song, the good old SSB.

In a few years my knowledge of the world would grow beyond the boundaries of those halcyon summer days. My childhood heroes, the Kennedy brothers and the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., had been struck down by assassins, Americans had landed on the moon, a bitterly divisive war was ending, a president had left office under a cloud, women, minorities and gays were striving for equal rights, the most influential rock band of all time, The Beatles, had disbanded, and the child who had danced in front of the mirror, trying to become a female Fred Astaire (I’d seen him on “The Early Show” afternoon television movie), was listening to a different tune.

My brother James, who is now the professional musician he dreamed of being in those days, thrust a mini reel-to-reel tape player in my face. (It was the iPod of its day.)

“Listen to this.”

And blaring out of that portable player, in all its tinny glory, came the sounds of the revolution.

It was “The Star Spangled Banner” as performed by James Marshall Hendrix, once a paratrooper and member of the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky --- and now, as Jimi Hendrix, the most innovative and acclaimed rock guitarist of his time.

Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock, NY August 18, 1969

As Wayne Pernu writes in Star Spangled Banned:Anthem of A Generation:

"Jimi Hendrix's performance of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock was a turning point in the history of the counter-culture movement.

The sounds Hendrix drew from his Fender Strat were literally an aural recreation of war. In between the machine-gun fire, bombs dropping, smoke billowing from napalm blazes, and a wrenching undercurrent that evoked the agonizing polarity which tore our country apart and destroyed Vietnam, Hendrix treated the song with surprising reverence... While people presume "Star Spangled Banner" to be defiantly anti-war, it is no such thing; such a notion limits the scope of the piece... Eric Burdon [lead singer of The Animals] recalled that when Hendrix arrived in England he spoke fervently about the need for the United States to subdue Chinese Communism before it overtook the world. It is important to remember that Hendrix had been on both sides of the fence, experiencing attitudes toward the war as diametrically opposed to one another as could be... At the same time, Hendrix possessed a pacifistic nature that certainly contributed to the work's radiant objectivity.”

Jimi was my brother’s musical hero, and he devoured everything he could find on Hendrix. I don’t recall where James got that bootleg --- perhaps handed down through his musician friends, perhaps taped from the audience in the theater where the “Woodstock” documentary film played the following year. I do remember that my young ears had never heard anything like it.

Many prefer traditional interpretations of "The Star Spangled Banner" and some even consider radical reinterpretations of the anthem to be disrespectful. I am a patriot of the left wing and I know that protest for many (no, not all) was born out of love for this country and a fervent desire to see it become the best it could be. Though it is not for all tastes, Hendrix’s version was a way of combining his formidable musical genius with a new interpretation of a patriotic tune, relevant to his life and his experience.

Who were the people who experienced Hendrix? They were the thoughtful, the self-indulgent, the fun-loving, the disorderly, the revolutionaries, the camp followers, the libertines and the lovers of liberty --- all coming together at Woodstock, a musical celebration as out-of-this world as the moon landing a month earlier.

- Woodstock poster by Arnold Skolnick

To place Hendrix’s performance in the context of its time, check out the 1970 Academy Award winning documentary “Woodstock.” One of my writing heroes, the kate film critic Roger Ebert, said of "Woodstock":

“The Hendrix guitar solo is the most famous single element in the film, which uses it as a form of closure. As Hendrix begins, we see the concert grounds after most of the 400,00 have left, leaving behind acres of debris, muddy blankets, lost shoes. Then the chronology reverses itself to show the field filling, until finally we see the whole expanse of the mighty crowd, as Hendrix's guitar evokes rockets bursting in air.

‘Woodstock’ is a beautiful, moving, ultimately great film. It seemed to signal the beginning of something. Maybe it signaled the end. Somebody told me the other day that the 1960s has ‘failed.’ Failed at what? They certainly didn't fail at being the 1960s. Now that the period is described as a far-ago time... how touching it is in this film to see the full flower of its moment, of its youth and hope.”

What has happened to the echoes of Woodstock Nation? My brother James has lived in Italy for many years, touring the world with some of the most famous musicians of the past thirty years. His twenty-something son was born and raised in Italy, and his favorite musician is --- Jimi Hendrix.

Though I was a tad too young to appreciate the times fully --- except with my copycat little sister “hippie” clothing and hair --- I now appreciate so much about that era, particularly its music.

The musicians of that time sang a different song of America, but it was a song of our nation all the same.

- Photo from PBS's "A Capitol Fourth" July 4, 2004

For ten years now, when I think of Independence Day, I think of Clay Aiken - the man with the soaring voice, snarky personality and thoughtful way of living, with service to others always in mind. Clay has been a part of my musical landscape for more than a decade, and he is one of my favorite Fourth of July memories.

Clay has an interesting and complex history with the holiday.

In 2002, he was a college student, sitting in the hospital where his stepfather, with whom he had a difficult relationship, lay dying.

In 2003, just beginning his transition from amateur to professional singer, he left rehearsals for the American Idol Tour to mark that anniversary with his family.

In 2004, as a chart-topping, best-selling singer, he was selected to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" to open the PBS broadcast of “A Capitol Fourth,” which took place on the West Lawn of the United States Capitol in Washington DC. Clay also sang “Measure of a Man” and “God Bless the USA,” dedicating his performance to the men and women who were serving the country. Clay’s brother Brett had just joined the Marines, served in Iraq and is now a veteran of that service.

In July of 2008, Clay had just returned from a field mission to wartorn Somalia and later wrote a blog about the visit for the Huffington Post.  It was his fifth journey as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, taking action against humanitarian crises that had ripped apart the lives of children worldwide - all of whom are deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In 2014, Clay is the Democratic nominee for the United States House of Representatives for North Carolina's District 2. (To learn more about his campaign, check out "Clay for North Carolina")  He believes - as I do - that far too few people in Congress are actually representing the people who elected them, instead catering to lobbyists and kowtowing to party bosses, even over their better judgment, the good of the nation and the interests of the district they represent.

Congressional candidate Clay Aiken celebrating Independence Day 2014 with the citizens of Pinehurst, Moore County, North Carolina - from ClayforNC Instagram

I wish more people of conscience who couldn't sing and entertain as well as Clay would go to D.C. and leave me my favorite artist and activist, but he didn't ask me to vote on his life,  so I'm left with adding him to my list of national candidates worthy of support.

During his time in the public eye, Clay has performed the SSB for the minor league Durham Bulls --- and at Game One of the 100th anniversary of the World Series of Baseball. He has sung the national anthem on D-Day, the sixth of June, at a NASCAR race in Dover, Delaware; at a basketball game for his alma mater, the University of North Carolina Charlotte; and at a Carolina Hurricanes hockey game. He sings it well, with an ease that conceals the song’s difficulty.

Clay’s performance for “A Capitol Fourth” is one of my favorites --- and it is worlds away from my memories of squeaky-voiced renditions in school auditoriums and boisterous shout-outs in summer ballparks.

In this rendition, Clay’s voice, though not perfect, is just beautiful, and I love the simplicity, the honesty and the respect with which he approaches the anthem. Some renditions are overly earnest and therefore feel insincere, a few have an unfortunate air of jingoism, others feel a bit like a star turn by the celebrated singers who perform it. Accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra, Clay’s version is traditional but not staid, and it feels appropriate to the setting. There are other songs of the American experience that I would had love to hear Clay sing before he set aside entertainment to pursue a new spirit of compromise and solutions for the nation's ills, so I’m glad I have this performance in my collection.

“The Star Spangled Banner” has now been our national anthem for eighty-three of our 238 years as a nation. The more I learned about it, the more I respected the song and its history, but it is another song, with its imagery of a peaceful America, that touches my soul.

The song is “America The Beautiful,” and the soulful, heartfelt version performed by the legendary Ray Charles has become a favorite, regardless of the occasion.

This version was recorded at the 2001 World Series, following the tragedy of 9/11.  Charles changes the order of the verses,  starting with the rarely heard third verse, as a salute to the heroes of that day:

America the Beautiful

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

(Spoken:  "When I was a little boy, I remember we always sang these words.")

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

- From an 1893 poem by Katharine Lee Bates, melody from the 1882 hymn “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem” by Samuel Augustus Ward.

Like the SSB, “America the Beautiful” has many verses that aren't sung very often, including some archaic language that would have contemporary Americans scratching their heads. But I love the song’s majestic imagery, its idyllic vision of a brotherhood shared by all Americans --- and the fact that you don’t have to be Ray Charles or Clay Aiken to sing it. It is not our national song, but it remains to me an anthem of reverent prayer and quiet celebration, just as it was to the little girl growing up in Pasadena, watching the fireworks and singing old songs.

Now we celebrate the 238th anniversary of the birth of this country, a place that is centuries old but still experiencing growing pains. A few years ago, I saw the possibility of change, and I had great hope.  Indeed, there have been some wonderful changes over the last six years, extending freedom to many more Americans and insuring that there would be fewer barriers to the pursuit of liberty. Two wars have ended or are ending, at east fr this country, and now must be settled by the people whose day-to-day fates hang in the balance.  And the mastermind of murder on 9/11 and beyond, is no more,

But the Voting Rights Act of my childhood has been gutted,  A woman's right to choose is increasingly dictated by men who seem hostile to and contemptuous of women. The very idea of sensible guns laws, particularly in the face of mass shootings that have seen the slaughter of children with just one number in their ages, are somehow so controversial that tempers flair at their very mention, and Congress continues in its abject failure to protect the First Amendment as vigorously as the Second.

In an Orwellian twist, the Supreme Court has decided that corporations are people and now, in a decision that would horrify the Founding Fathers, that religious groups are allowed to restrict the rights of others by selecting which laws they wish to follow. Racism, even with the election and reelection of the first African American president,  grows like a cancer, with the rise of hate speech and the failure to protect voting rights despite evidence that they is still both needed and effective. How heartbreaking to see divisions of old fracture anew,

There has been discord and there has been magnificent courage. There have been war heroes, and peace heroes as well. There has been a myriad of opinions, from the left, the right and the center. And there has been the music, chronicling the changing times.

Administrations (even the best of them) and Congresses (even the worst of them) come and go, but the people and their music endure. This is my country. This land is your land, this land is my land. Born in the USA.

I’ll celebrate a while, but there is work left to do to achieve the dream. There are still songs to be sung about hope and freedom and the people turn their dreams into action,

Happy Birthday, America. On this Fourth of July, regardless of politics and problems, challenges and  controversies, of thee I sing.