Free Verse: Why 'The Star-Spangled Banner' is intertwined with American sports

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Tuesday July 4th, 2017

Considering that he urged Colin Kaepernick to leave the country for kneeling during the national anthem, you’d think Donald Trump would be up to speed on his star-spangled etiquette. But there was POTUS on the Truman Balcony, in the tense moments before the White House Easter Egg Roll, needing a covert elbow from his Slovenian-born wife, Melania, to remember to put his hand over his heart after the vocalist beside them had begun singing the anthem.

The ensuing media kerfuffle—call it the Nudge Seen ’Round the World—was a reminder of the power and potency of this two-century-old song. Another, more uplifting reminder came two weeks later in Edmonton, before Game 3 of the Oilers’ quarterfinal series against the Ducks. Realizing his microphone was dead, country music star Brett Kissel led 18,000 hockey fans in an a cappella rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Canadians crushed it—they seemed especially to enjoy chasing the high notes in “rockets’ red glare”—and created a bilateral feel-good moment that raised the question: How many U.S. citizens could get through the first stanza of “O Canada”? How many, for that matter, could make their way cleanly through the opening verse of Francis Scott Key’s most famous creation?

Even a veteran anthem singer like John Vincent lives in fear of striding to home plate one evening and blanking on, or mangling, the lyrics. To more deeply ingrain those passages in his brain, Vincent says he will crank some song on his car radio, “and I’ll sing the anthem over that”—his version of resistance training.

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The burly, Chicago-based baritone, who electrified Wrigley Field before Game 4 of last year’s World Series, is best known for holding the fourth word in “land of the free” for an extended period—sometimes 20 seconds or more. His approach differs from that of a purist like Harry Connick Jr., who turned in a crisper, more allegro version of the anthem before this year’s Kentucky Derby. Asked beforehand if he intended to throw in “any twists,” Connick seemed to don his old American Idol judge’s hat in replying, “I don’t like twists—it’s the national anthem.”

Artists, of course, have been putting their own stamp on the song for decades. Recall Marvin Gaye’s Motown-infused take on it at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. What’s different today is the attention paid to anthem singers before the music even starts. Leading up to the Derby, Connick gave numerous interviews about his upcoming performance. Vincent too was in the news last month, when the Cubs presented him with his own World Series ring. Before exploring Vincent’s reasons for “holding the free,” as he calls it—they entail Nazis, tanks and his grandmother—let’s take a more macro view and ask: When did “The Star-Spangled Banner” become inextricably bound with sports? How did we get to a point where a reserve NFL quarterback’s refusal to stand for a song celebrating America’s 203-year-old victory in the Battle of Baltimore could trigger widespread copycat protests—which then migrated to other sports, in the process provoking discussions and raising awareness about police brutality and racial inequality? Those demonstrations in turn led to counter-protests and disgruntlement that cost the NFL at least a few TV ratings points last season. Plenty of countries don’t sing their national anthem before sporting events. Why do we? And why the commotion when someone opts out?

Well, how far back do you want to go?

•••

Anacreon was a Greek poet from the fifth century B.C. whose verses celebrated love and wine, Venus and Bacchus. “He was a hedonistic kind of guy,” says David Hildebrand, a Ph.D. who teaches American music history at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, “the Hugh Hefner of his day.”

The poet’s admirers, explains Hildebrand, one of the country’s foremost experts on the history of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” included a cadre of upper-crust Brits in the mid-18th century, a group of amateur musicians who embraced the poet’s hedonistic outlook. They had a clubhouse on London’s Drury Lane and a president who composed a poem seeking Anacreon’s blessing from the beyond. That poem was set to music, by one John Stafford Smith, and “The Anacreontic Song” was published in 1779, “right around the time Francis Scott Key was born near Frederick, Maryland!” notes Hildebrand, delighting in the coincidence.

Key grew up, became a lawyer and moved to Georgetown, Md., in time for the War of 1812, in which British ships blockaded Chesapeake Bay. A pacifist, he nonetheless took up arms for the Battle of Bladensburg. After British troops routed the Americans, the invaders marched on Washington, where they burned the White House, the Capitol and other federal buildings.

On the way back to their ships, the Brits took as prisoner the elderly Dr. William Beanes, a respected local citizen. Under a flag of truce, Key was sent to seek the release of the good doctor. It helped, says Hildebrand, that Key had in his hand “a number of letters written by wounded British soldiers who’d been taken very good care of by Dr. Beanes.”

At a very civilized dinner aboard one of the ships, at a table with two admirals and Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, who would soon be killed in the Battle of Baltimore, Key secured the prisoner’s release. “But they couldn’t just let Key go,” says Hildebrand. “The British had already decided they were going to sail back up the bay and burn Baltimore.

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“So Key was forced to stay with the British fleet and to witness the bombardment by these incredibly huge British ships that rained down bloody hell on Fort McHenry for 24 hours.”

On the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, filled with joy and relief at seeing that the American flag over the fort was “still there,” Key set about composing the four verses of a poem he called “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” Set to “The Anacreontic Song”—Stafford Smith’s popular drinking ditty—it caught on quickly, and was soon renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Beloved though it was, “The Banner” would need a boost from a world-famous advocate to become the song of the nation.

***

John Philip Souza was born in 1854, the third of 10 children of John and Maria Sousa. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he was something of a musical prodigy. When, at 13, he tried to run away and join a circus band, his father enlisted him in the Marines as an apprentice. A prolific composer of songs, marches and operettas, Sousa rose to become conductor of the U.S. Marine Band by age 25. In ’92 he started his own civilian band, and it toured the world for 40 years.

In the course of his travels it irked Sousa that other countries had official national anthems, “but when they greeted the Americans, they didn’t know what to play,” says Hildebrand.

By 1921 the Yankees and other major league teams had adopted what would become a familiar pregame pose.
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At the time, another popular piece, “Hail, Columbia,” was America’s unofficial anthem. Much preferring “The Star-Spangled Banner,” however, “Sousa purposefully had his band play it at almost all of his concerts— sometimes just the melody, other times it would be sung—until people grew familiar with it, grew to love it,” Hildebrand says.

Sousa’s cause was taken up by a small group of Maryland women, the Daughters of 1812, who lobbied their congressmen to submit a bill to have “The Star-Spangled Banner” recognized as the national anthem. But their momentum was checked by the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919. It simply would not do, clucked the scolds in Congress, to bestow national anthem status, at the dawn of Prohibition, on a piece of music based on a drinking song. It took until ’31 for President Herbert Hoover to grant their wish. By then, “The Banner” had become a staple at sporting events.

Conceived in war, the anthem is most charged when the nation is in conflict—as it was during the 1918 World Series between the Cubs and the Red Sox. Game 1 was lightly attended, members of the paying public distracted by World War I, which had already claimed 100,000 American lives. A low scoring game—Red Sox ace Babe Ruth was in the process of blanking the Cubs 1–0—made for a listless seventh-inning stretch that was enlivened when the band at Comiskey Park “broke forth to the strains of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’” according to the next day’s New York Times. “First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined.” By the time the band got to “home of the brave,” most of the stadium had joined in. The end of the song was marked by “thunderous applause,” marking “the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.”

Taking note of this patriotic upwelling—and its attendant excellent public relations—Red Sox owner Harry Frazee saw to it that Games 4, 5 and 6, all at Fenway Park, began with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And so it began. Down through the decades, the anthem migrated from postseason to regular season; from baseball to every other pastime. By the 1960s it was ubiquitous in U.S. stadia, played and sung with a regularity that might fairly be described as numbing.

Reinterpreting a melody marked “property of the Republic” can be a risky business. While history has judged Gaye’s All-Star rendition generously, many in its immediate aftermath—then NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien among them—did not. José Feliciano was 23 when he and his guide dog, Trudy, walked out to centerfield in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium to sing the anthem before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. His bluesy, note-bending, pop-inspired version went over poorly in middle America. That he was long-haired and Puerto Rican hardly helped Feliciano’s cause. “Veterans,” he later wrote, “had thrown their shoes at the television as I sang; others questioned my right to stay in the United States.”

Ten months later, Jimi Hendrix laid down a mind-bending rendition at Woodstock, replete with amplifier feedback designed to replicate the cacophony of the Vietnam War. (At one point Hendrix interrupted the song to play “Taps.”) 

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Since then, laments Hildebrand, the public performance of the anthem “has just gone further downhill”—reaching its nadir, arguably, with Roseanne Barr’s catastrophic, off-key attempt, punctuated by expectoration and a crotch grab, at a Padres game in 1990. Hildebrand prefers the anthem’s “original melody, and original time signature, meaning three beats to the measure, instead of four,” and has no use for “rock-star divas who like to draw attention to themselves.”

John Vincent gets flak like that, even though he’s not exactly a diva.

***

A native of  Chicago’s South Side, the 6'4", 380-pound Vincent has performed at Mike Ditka’s restaurant on Chestnut Street since 2001 and regularly belts out the anthem at Cubs, Bulls and Green Bay Packers games. Before his singing career took off, he was known as John Pierorazio. His father, Vincenzo, was born in 1935 in the Abruzzi region of Italy, low on the calf of the boot. His family was poor and during World War II occupying German soldiers moved into the Pierorazios’ home and forced them into a nearby barn.

One day, while walking in town, Vincenzo and his mother saw a row of German tanks. Under one of the tanks was a tarpaulin. Hoping to use it to patch the clothes of her children, and to cover firewood, she sent her son to retrieve it. After doing so, the young Vincenzo turned around to see a German soldier pointing a gun at his mother’s head.

Gioconda Pierorazio did not die that day. Her son dropped the tarp; she was spared and lived four more decades. But that dramatic vignette entered family lore and has become an emblem of why the clan emigrated to the U.S. It is the primary reason that John Vincent cites for holding the fourth word in “land of the free” until no breath remains in his lungs.

“I know there’s a lot of bad stuff going on,” says Vincent, “but it seems to me that in America, we’re very, very lucky. The reason I’m so proud to sing the anthem, and hold that note, is because I want people to be happy. I want freedom for everyone.”

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Steve Dykes/Getty Images

As he strains to hold the note, perspiration popping on his forehead, the crowd going wild, Vincent can be viewed, by some at least, as the very apotheosis of patriotism—the antidote to Colin Kaepernick. But there’s less distance between them than you might think. In “holding the free,” Vincent is celebrating freedom from the arbitrary, unchecked power of an occupying force; by kneeling during the anthem, Kaepernick seeks to remind us that this is precisely how many African-Americans view the police charged with protecting them: as an occupying force.

Or rather sought to remind us. In early March, just after opting out of his 49ers contract to become a free agent, Kaepernick put the word out that he will no longer kneel during the national anthem. Part of the reason for his decision is that he feels he’s being heard: His protests spawned imitators from the NFL and NBA and National Women’s Soccer League, to colleges and high schools, cheerleaders and marching bands. And part of it, undoubtedly, is that he’d like to keep playing football for a living. Even as a backup, the money’s excellent.

With each week that passes, the likelihood increases that Kap, at 29, has taken his last NFL snap. It also becomes more and more evident that he is being blackballed by some owners supremely uncomfortable with his activism.

“Colin can still play,” one NFC player personnel director told SI in late March. “He’s better than some current starting QBs. He is not a great quarterback who can consistently win from the pocket, but he has enough skills to move the offense and give you a chance.”

Are teams put off by his activism? “They may think his [activism] takes away from his football development and preparation. There are concerns with his anthem protest—that it has the potential to divide the locker room and the fan base. That said, every team is always looking for a starter or good backup, which he could be.”

In retrospect, the personnel man seems to have underestimated how uncomfortable Kaepernick’s protests make most NFL owners, a congeries of billionaires and multimillionaires who don’t relish the prospect of being criticized by the Commander in Chief. Those fears are well-founded: The President said at a recent rally that NFL owners “don’t want to [sign Kaepernick] because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that?”

***

Last September, as the Kaepernick protests gained traction, Ditka, the former Bears coach, stated in a radio interview that he had “no respect for Colin Kaepernick.”

Ditka’s message to people who “don’t like the country, they don’t like the flag: Get the hell out.”

Iron Mike went on, “I like this country, I respect our flag.” It seemed not to have occurred to him that Kaepernick might share that affection and respect—so much so that Kap was willing to risk his career in an attempt to help the country live up to the words in its official song.

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“He is one of the kindest guys in the world,” says Vincent of Ditka, who helped launch his career.

“Growing up,” recalls Vincent, “I used to get the s--- kicked out of me. Then I grew eight inches from junior to senior year.”

A late bloomer, he started at left tackle as a senior at St. Laurence High. After four seasons at Elmhurst (Ill.) College, he played in 1995 for the Düsseldorf Panther of the German Football League, before embarking on a career as a recruiter for CPS, a staffing and recruiting firm. All this time he was known, among family and friends, for his spot-on covers of Sinatra tunes. At 29, prodded by his sister, he recorded himself singing “Summer Wind” and a few other Ol’ Blue Eyes standards and dropped the cassette off at Rosebuds, on Rush Street. Next thing he knew he was singing there Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings, for a hundred bucks a night. Soon a friend mentioned him to the manager at Ditka’s, who invited him to drop by, and his life as a house singer began.

Ranging an octave and a half, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is among the more challenging songs in Vincent’s—or anyone’s—repertoire. (“God Save the Queen,” for instance, covers less than an octave.) Upon finishing, he must steel himself for the inevitable trolls who accuse him of “hotdogging” and making the anthem about himself. They’re missing his point. By lingering so long on a single word, he’s reminding fellow citizens not to take their freedom for granted. Which isn’t so different, if you think about, from the point Kaepernick has been trying to make.

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