Year 200 Guest Post—On Teaching “The Star-Spangled Banner” in American Studies and Music Courses by Will Fulton

For Music in the U.S.: A Cultural Perspective, an interdisciplinary course that is cross-listed in American Studies and Music, I scheduled the opening unit on “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  In beginning the course with the “Banner,” my aim was to examine changing performance practices of the anthem, and to explore ways that different performances of this one piece of music have served as a catalyst for discourse and debate. My goal was to encourage students to consider how performance contexts shape notions of meaning, specifically in the case of the national anthem.
While the plan had originally been to discuss past performances of the “Banner,” in the spring of 2013, scheduling the unit first ended up being a stroke of luck.  During the dates in which I taught this unit, televised performances of the anthem occurred that were the focus of considerable national discussion. The class dates began directly after Beyoncé’s infamous “lip-syncing” during the inauguration on January 20, 2013, her follow-up a cappella press conference performance on January 31, and ended after Alicia Keys’s tender Super Bowl XLVII rendition on February 3rd.  As these three performances were the subject of much discussion in the media (some reporters even nicknamed the inauguration scandal “Lip-sync Gate”), they highlighted the ways in which the “Banner” proves to be a continued subject of controversy, regarding how the work should be performed.  Due to the Star Spangled Music Foundation’s new recording of the original 1814 Theodore Carr arrangement, we were able to explore changes in style and arrangement spanning two centuries!
In order to frame the class discussion, I introduced the “Music-Culture Model” of Mark Slobin and Jeff Todd Titon[1].  Slobin and Titon’s model centers on the affect of the music, which is brought into being by a musical performance that is situated in the community, carrying and recognizing the traditions and norms of the performance.  The time and space in which the performances take place are described by Slobin and Titon as memory and history: “The community is situated in history and borne by memory” such that any given musical act is understood in relation to past musical practice by the community through collective memory and historical precedence.[2]
Examining performances of the “Banner” in this context, I asked students to write an essay exploring notions of “traditional” performance, meaning performances that were perceived by the audience/community at a given time as upholding expectations of how the anthem should properly be performed.  I then asked them to compare these to versions that were “non-traditional,” or that denied or challenged performance norms based on memory and historical precedence. Students were then asked to address ways in which the concept of a “traditional” performance is shaped by historical context.
I offered the following versions and performances for them to discuss:

  • The original 1814 arrangement (historically informed performance, 2012): link
  • Igor Stravinsky, 1941 arrangement: link
  • Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, 1969: link
  • Whitney Houston, 1991 Super Bowl performance: link
  • Various artists, “Nuestro Himno (Our Anthem),” 2006: link
  • Beyoncé, 2013 Inauguration performance: link

During the classes, we discussed ways that historical factors shaped these versions and/or their reception: the War of 1812 for the writing of Francis Scott Key’s poem; the Boston Police’s concern regarding Stravinsky’s harmonization; Hendrix’s performance taking place during the Vietnam War; Houston’s during the Gulf War; “Nuestro Himno” and immigration reform protests. In addition to these versions, students were free to comment on other performances of the anthem as well (in class, we watched performances by Marvin Gaye: link, José Feliciano: link, and Carrie Underwood: link). Within the assigned essay, students were asked to describe the instrumentation, timbre, tempo, and dynamics of each performance.
Writing about Houston’s version at the 1991 Super Bowl, student Olivia R. states:

“[Houston’s performance had a] huge impact on Americans and this version became a new standard way of performing the song. Houston’s dynamic started out soft. When she got to the lyric, “And the rocket’s red glare,” her dynamics changed to loud and powerful. She also made this lyric, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” her own. Whitney took the word ‘free’ and put an outstanding twist on it by raising her pitch. I believe that this also became a standard in the way singers perform the song thereafter.”

Student Adam A. compared the affect of Hendrix’s version to the Carr arrangement:

“While the original version was meant to foster unity and rally troops, Jimi’s version showed the national turmoil of the late 1960s. Some say it represented the chaos of the Vietnam War. Jimi plays the melody of the first verse interwoven with several sections of musical bedlam. It is played with a standard rock drum set and Jimi’s guitar and effect pedals. His highly unorthodox rendition was regarded as an insult to the U.S. by many, but others have taken it to have a different meaning, one that simply represents the radically changing state that the nation was in. The section at the end and the addition of “Taps” seem to suggest that it was not meant to simply be seditious.”

Regarding the original 1814 arrangement, student Robert M. described how the version did not match his expectations of how the work is now performed:

“The Carr version contains a piano, six male lead vocalists, six backing women vocalists and a conductor. There is no improvising… This version, although contemporary at the time of its conception, feels very rigid and almost abrasive if compared to some of the contemporary versions we hear today.”

Student Alex C. offered a comparison of Carr’s arrangement with the Houston performance:

“Despite the fact that Houston’s version is both performed at a slower tempo than that of the original 1814 version, and takes certain vocal liberties when it comes to inflection and the placement of vibrato on certain notes, it has become the standard that those performing the national anthem, particularly at sporting events, are held to.”

In the conclusion of the essay, students were asked to comment as to whether musicians should be free to interpret the “Banner” as they wish, particularly in the cases of Hendrix’s version and “Nuestro Himno.” Assigned reading included the introduction to Charles Hiroshi Garrett’s Struggling to Define a Nation, which discusses the controversy surrounding “Nuestro Himno,” as well as a viewing of Hendrix’s 1970 interview on The Dick Cavett Show in which he talks about his performance of the “Banner”(link).
While some students supported the right of performers to reinterpret the national anthem, many others, including Rabbia M., disagreed:

“The national anthem is an official national song, therefore any modification would indicate disrespect toward the country. Furthermore, if we constantly sing and play the national anthem in different language and musical style, the anthem will without a doubt loose its value, importance, and purpose as source of pride for the country. This is why I believe that some things are just meant to be the way they are and the national anthem of United States of America is certainly one of them.”

Discussion of the “Banner” drew strong opinions from students, both in class, and in their papers. In a course with units on rock & roll, hip hop, and jazz, a number of students remarked that the unit on “The Star-Spangled Banner” was one of their favorites. Learning the history of the work (they were all shocked to learn that there were so many verses!), and then comparing performances and arrangements over the last two centuries engaged them, and gave them the opportunity to think critically about the anthem’s role in U.S. culture. While not every course takes place during “Banner” performances as widely discussed as Beyoncé’s at the 2013 inauguration, in more recent classes, I have encouraged students to find and discuss contemporary performances. In doing so, I hope to stress that each performance of the “Banner” is part of the ongoing history of the anthem, and one that each of them – as audience, performer, or critic – is part of.


[1] See Mark Slobin and Jeff Todd Titon, “The Music Culture as a World of Music” in Jeff Titon, ed., The Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples (New York: Schirmer, 2002).
[2] Slobin and Titon, 5.

Fulton-portrait-headshotWill Fulton is a scholar of American music, and an instructor at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College. The focus of his research is on popular music and recording technology.  He has contributed articles to American Music Review and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd Edition, and has presented papers at conferences for the Society of American Music, American Musicological Society, International Musicological Society, and the American Studies Association.

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