O Say Can you Sing?

Before September 11, we had become jaded to patriotic songs, and even bored with them. Most television and radio stations stopped airing the singing of the national anthem during sporting events back in the late 1980s. Why waste two minutes of valuable commercial advertising time for a song with an operatic range and a tongue-twisting, tortuous text that has tripped up more than one professional singer? Robert Goulet was the butt of jokes for decades after he mangled the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” in 1965 at a heavyweight-title boxing match. “You’ve got ‘night,’ ‘light,’ ‘twilight,’ ‘bright’ and ‘fight,’ and you’ve got to make them all go in the proper direction,” he lamented.

Over the years, jazz and pop singers have stretched and stylized the national anthem with soulful sustained notes, bent pitch, and added notes until the song was barely recognizable as the 1814 ode to the Battle of Baltimore that Francis Scott Key penned to a 1777 British drinking tune. Though most Americans still stood and a few doffed their hats for the national anthem, we stopped singing it corporately. We waited for the soloist’s or boy band’s high note “O’er the land of the free—EEEE” to signal the start of the main attraction.

In recent years there have been well-publicized controversies over comedienne Rosanne Barr’s vulgar crotch-grabbing rendition of the song in 1990, and later, a battle between Fox television and baseball commissioner George Steinbrenner over whether the perennial favorite baritone Robert Merrill or crooner Tony Bennett would sing the national anthem at the Yankees 1998 world-series opener. Merrill sang the anthem, Bennett sang “God Bless America,” and “The Star Spangled Banner” drifted from our collective consciousness. Until September 11.

The image that captured the heart of a nation devastated by terrorist attacks was a photograph of three firemen raising a tattered American flag in the ruins of the World Trade Center. “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” Within days we began to sing through our tears as music provided a small solace and a glimmer of healing. Pop stars and opera stars sang traditional versions of “God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful,” and “The Star Spangled Banner” at prayer services and national memorials. As soloists sang in churches, civic centers and sports arenas across the country, mourners raised their voices in song when mere spoken words would not suffice.

When our national pastime resumed on September 17 after six dark days, stadiums were filled with patriotic songs. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig had decreed a moment of silence and the singing of the national anthem before each game. In most parks, “God Bless America” replaced the jolly “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Crowds rose to their feet to join in the singing. In bars and living rooms, where televisions once again aired the pre-game ceremony, people stood and sang, “O-o say can you see….

We wanted patriotic songs, and for the most part, we wanted them sung “straight”—traditionally and respectfully by trained singers who can hit all the notes and remember the words. We wanted Denyce Graves, Robert Merrill, and a singing policeman named Daniel Rodriguez, not Macy Gray and N’SYNC.

Two weeks after the terrorist attacks, soprano Beverley Rinaldi sang one of the most difficult performances of her life. The well-known Cleveland Institute of Music faculty member had been asked to sing at a memorial service in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the 23-year old son of a friend. The young man, a recent graduate of Yale University, died on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center on September 11. The service had a patriotic theme, with flags and red, white and blue flowers. More than 800 mourners packed the church, including hometown family and friends, Yale classmates, and a New York roommate.

“The first hymn had gone well,” Rinaldi recalls. “I just took the words as a singer, as a communicator, and sang them in his honor.” She sat and listened to heartfelt tributes by the young man’s friends and sister, and then it was time to end the service with “God Bless America.”

“I made up my mind that when I stood to sing those opening phrases ‘As the storm clouds gather far across the seas, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free…’ I had to be forceful and strong because that is exactly what was going on overseas,” she explains. “I started to sing and was in pretty good control.” As Rinaldi got to “from the mountains…” a woman in the crowd suddenly stood and began to sing. “Then one by one, other people stood and voices joined with me,” says Rinaldi. “I’m not kidding, with my whole being inside me, I felt like the roof of the church was lifting up. It was a very spiritual moment.”

Rinaldi felt herself falter, but kept her concentration. By the time she got to the end, though, the tears were there. “You are giving them something and that is what music does,” she says. “It makes you mourn and it gives you comfort at the same time.”

When we spoke last May, Rinaldi had not sung “God Bless America” or “The Star Spangled Banner” in public since that September memorial service. As she thought about returning to the Interlochen Arts Camp this summer, where she has been teaching and singing for two decades, she wondered about singing patriotic songs for the Fourth of July celebration. “I’m not certain how I’ll feel. I will try to make it a tribute,” she says. “I love this country and I love singing those songs.”

It’s a sentiment that will be echoed by millions this summer at Fourth of July celebrations and baseball fields. Sportswriter John P. Lopez wrote in the Houston Chronicle last September 17: “I have come to stand and sing the national anthem. I’m sure it will be off-key, but I don’t care. I won’t be embarrassed or preoccupied anymore. I will sing again, and I’m sorry it’s been so long since I have.”

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.