Monday, May 30, 2011

Everybody sings, or nobody sings

I've ranted about this before, but Memorial Day seems to bring it out worst--worse, even, than Independence Day.
I went with my father-in-law to a Memorial Day observance at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City today.  That museum is one of my favorite places in the area, and I've been to the KC Memorial Day observance there before as well.  And as a whole the observance was quite well-done.  The expected speeches by politicians were actually reasonably thoughtful and appropriate; the ceremonial events were executed with dignity and respect.  An American Legion band played with gusto and decent musicianship.  The only real problems came along when somebody opened their mouths to sing.
In one case it was simply poor singing.  I don't know if lack of rehearsal time with the band was the culprit or what, but . . . urgh, not good.  The other, though, played on a nerve that has been sensitized for years.  Near the front of the program a young woman--a high-school sophomore, I believe, was introduced to sing the Star-Spangled Banner.
Admittedly I'm not fond of the whole Broadway-baby belting style of singing in someone so young, but that wasn't the grating issue; frankly, the problem was with the basic existence of a soloist at all.
The Star-Spangled Banner has a rather interesting history in American practice, particularly around the World War I era.  Failure to play it in a concert was cause for throwing German-born orchestra conductors in prison, among other things.  (That's a much longer blog entry than I want to get into at this point.)  Most reports that I've been able to see suggest that crowds sang it lustily.  Not that there weren't occasions of handing it off to soloists, but as often the soloist made sure to sing it to keep on the good side of the patriotism police.
Now?  How many occasions do you know of when the people -- not some American Idol wannabe, not some fading celebrity, but the actual real live people in an audience -- actually sing the national anthem?
Here's a little secret that might be useful for folks in charge of events; putting a "soloist" in front of a crowd sends the following signal: Shut up.  This person is the singer, you're not.  We don't want to hear you sing.  Stay quiet and listen to the real singer.  Really, is that any way to treat the national anthem?  If there's any song that should be wrenched away from the soloists and put back in the mouths of the folk, this is the one, isn't it?
(I feel compelled to point out that this isn't really the business of the church to handle.  Future preacher or not, a Sunday worship service ain't the venue for this quarrel.)
Notice also that I'm not even getting into the issue of how some singers mangle the anthem, turning it into a mere showpiece for vocal gymnastics as if it's just another generic pop song on their next generic CD release.  Yeah, that gripes me too, but I want to stick to what seems the more basic issue for now.  Why are they there in the first place?
Are we actually the problem?  Are modern Americans too lazy even to sing for two minutes?  Please don't give me the gripes about how hard the song is.  Dammit, not on Memorial Day.  On a day set aside to remember the people who did the hard stuff we didn't want to, and lost their lives doing it, don't you dare try to claim that it's too hard to sing the Star-Spangled Banner.  Just . . . don't.
So if you're with me, here's the question:  how to start the revolution?  Where does one start the fire to put our national anthem back in our voices?  While it would be very cool to hear a crowd at a baseball game drown out the appointed soloist, I don't see it being feasible; that's a lot of people, even at a Royals game (rimshot!), to coordinate in a singing sneak attack.  I've had some sort of NPR commentary suggested, but do enough people really listen to those to make a difference?  Seriously, folks, make the comments section light up for once.  How to get the anthem sung by actual, everyday Americans instead of appointed stars, Fox Sports and its ilk be damned?  Fire up the ballpark organ, strike up the band, and (to paraphrase a Charles Ives title) let the voice of the people arise.
So the title is the motto: everybody sings, or nobody sings.

1 comment:

  1. But they will all sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th-inning stretch. The problem is the singers. You are correct that a solo singer cues modern audiences to listen, not join in. I've made this same argument about hymn singing in church. If a "cantor" is necessary, let them start the song and back away from the microphone. Better yet, let the organ introduce the hymn and let the people take it. If no one ever sings, then we've truly lost the tradition of congregational (sacred and secular) singing forever and should just move on. Bring back the choirs!