Oh, Say Can You Sing ... the National Anthem?


"The Star Spangled Banner" -- our national anthem -- is under attack. Or so you would think by the rush to defend it on Capitol Hill last week.

As millions marched for immigration rights, the U.S. Senate introduced a resolution to ensure that the national anthem would be sung only in English. A day later a similar measure was introduced in the House of Representatives.

The latest assault on the English-only anthem was launched last month -- with less than a rocket's red glare -- when a group of Hispanic vocal artists released a Spanish-language version of the song. And while the State Department Web site does post Francis Scott Key's 1814 rendition in other languages not all Americans are in favor of a multilingual version.

President Bush weighed in on the subject in a Rose Garden ceremony on April 28, saying, "I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English. And they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English."

On Monday, May 1, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., rose bravely on the floor of the U.S. Senate to defend the anthem from those who would sing it in Spanish, saying "We should always sing it in our common language -- English."

It's a song that's not exactly pure in its origins. Adopted as the national anthem in 1931, the lyrics come from a 1814 poem by lawyer Francis Scott Key, who was inspired by the American flag flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor during a British naval bombardment. So moved was Key by the sight that he lifted the music from a British composer.

The tune -- and its notoriously archaic lyrics -- have been mangled by singers ever since. A recent poll revealed that 61 percent of Americans cannot correctly recite the lyrics, much less sing them.

So on a glorious spring day last week, we went to Capitol Hill and -- armed with a cheat sheet of lyrics printed on a piece of paper -- we marched up to tourists, school groups, tour guides and our elected officials and posed the question: Oh, say can you sing -- the national anthem?

A Chorus of Excuses

Right away we thought we might have arrived at the home of the brave as Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, sweetly sang the entire song beginning to end with gusto, gesturing broadly over the final stanza to the gleaming dome of the U.S. Capitol building. But alas, she was the last to solo.

One congressman, Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, sang the anthem along with a group of students from Houston's Herrera Elementary School. But most of the other dozen or so House members we approached suddenly had important business to conduct and fled after offering lame excuses.

"I can probably sing it with a group," said Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala. "If I was in a group, I would sing it."

"I'm not that good," said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., as he begged off.

And Rep. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, a reported target in the ongoing federal probe of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, waved us off claiming, "I'm on the phone with my wife."

The often-partisan bickering on Capitol Hill was absent on this issue: Every member of the House or Senate we approached insisted that the national anthem should be sung only in English. Rep. Gary Miller, R-Calif., said, "It's an insult" to use a foreign tongue.

One technique several congressmen used to demonstrate their lyrical knowledge of the "The Star-Spangled Banner" without having to perform it was to offer arcane facts about the song as they walked away.

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