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


May 8, 2006 — -- "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?

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.

"Francis Scott Key," shouted Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., as he rushed to the House floor. "In the harbor. The flag still standing."

"Oh, say can you see ABC?" mocked Rep. Paul Gillmor, R-Ohio.

Across the Capitol Plaza, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., had an important lunch to attend and so wouldn't sing along. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas., said, "I can't sing," but Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., offered a spirited version unique to fans of the Baltimore Orioles who emphasize the "Oh!" at the start of baseball game renditions.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sang the first stanzas so robustly we weren't about to challenge his knowledge of the rest. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham was gentlemanly when we put him on the spot, saying, "I am like 61 percent of Americans. If I had to get up and recite the national anthem, I would fail miserably."

We came upon a woman dressed as a fish -- she was lobbying for clean water -- and she sang it with just a minor flub. A group of chiropractors whirled around and sang it backward. Get it? Backward.

Finally, we came upon a quintet of soldiers out on a training run carrying rucksacks on their backs and dressed in T-shirts, shorts and combat boots. We offered to sing the song with them, but they declined any help when we asked them to sing the national anthem. One soldier confidently said, "I don't think that will be a problem."

The five soldiers lined up in a semicircle and harmoniously provided the best rendition of the day of the difficult-to-sing song. The singers, it turns out, were ringers of a sort. These particular soldiers were members of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry, the Old Guard, stationed at Fort Myer, Va., the unit that was originally made up of Gen. George Washington's handpicked personal troops. And the five troops we happened upon comprised the unit's Color Guard. They routinely carry Old Glory at White House ceremonies, state funerals and at Arlington National Cemetery.

Whether you salute the Stars and Stripes with your hand over your heart or by singing in English or Spanish or any other language, "The Star-Spangled Banner," it seems, is in safe hands.

Sarah Baker contributed to this story.

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