National anthem is being defiled in the ballparks

April 17, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

LET'S TEST YOUR knowledge of music. Tell me what song these lyrics are from.

1. Oh-dah-lah-hah la-hah-haha-eee-hee-hah-aaaand-uh aaaan-uh uvva-uvva-uvva fruh-heee-heeeeee.

2. Anna homma-duh homma-du-du-du hommaaaaaaaaa.

3. Dee-uh-dee-hah-hah-hah buh-huh-eee-buh-huhe-eee-eee-eee-ray-have.

You say you don't recognize it? Nonsense. Of course you do. It's likely that you've heard and sung it dozens or hundreds of times, depending on your age. Your parents sang it. And probably your grandparents too.

You still don't know it. All right, I'll throw out a few hints.

It's a very old song. The words were written more than 150 years ago. The melody is even older than that.

You still don't know? Then you don't go to many Opening Days at baseball games.

Of course, when Francis Scott Key wrote that line, as well as the others that precede and follow it, he kept the lyrics much simpler for the human brain to comprehend: "O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave." And for many years, that's the way it was sung.

But it's no longer done that way. In recent times, there has developed a sort of informal competition among singers at ballparks, hockey rinks, basketball stadiums and other patriotic gathering places to see who can best turn "The Star-Spangled Banner" into something most resembling the howls of a maniac locked in the asylum tower.

I'm not sure when and where these free-form interpretations began, although I vaguely remember some guy named Jose creating a stir a few years ago by opening a World Series with a rendition that

sounded like the Star-Spangled Cha-Cha-Cha.

Since then, I have heard the anthem has been performed as the Star-Spangled Rock, the Star-Spangled Disco, the Star-Spangled Gospel, the Star-Spangled Blues, the Star-Spangled Hootenanny, the Star-Spangled Barbershop Quartet and the Star-Spangled Scalded Cat.

A few weeks ago, a woman who sang it before a Chicago Bulls game is believed to have set a record by using a variety of prolonged howls, shrieks, warbles, screams and other vocal acrobatics to drag it out to more than five minutes.

A man who was there told me: "I couldn't understand one word. And, I swear, if I were a Chicago policeman driving on a street in my squad car and I heard those sounds coming from a building, I would radio for backup, then draw my gun and go crashing into the place on the assumption that a woman was being brutally attacked by a gang of fiends."

I think it is time to draw the line. After all, it is our national anthem. As such, it should be performed with some dignity, rather than sounding like the singer has been bitten in the rear by a pit bull.

It's doubtful that anyone would stand in center court at Wimbledon and sing: "Ga-hah Say-hey-he-hey-iv ow-ow-owah guh-ray-hey-hey-hey-hey shush Qwa-hey-qua-hey-heee-eeeen." (That's "God save our gracious queen," ballpark style.) The English would say more than tut-tut, I'm sure.

Nor would they be impressed north of the border if someone gave them: "Oh-hoooo, Cay-hey-cay-neee-dah! Owah, yes, owah ahooooma, ahoooma and ney-yeh-ney-yey-tivuh-tivuh-baby-baby-light my-uh fiya lah-hah-hee-huh-ay-and. ("O Canada! Our home and native land!")"

If Mr. Key could return and be transported to an athletic arena to hear a modern interpretation, he'd recognize the tune, but he'd probably say: "Ah, English is no longer the native tongue?"

And think of the children. Generation after generation of parents bring their children to ballparks to introduce them to the national pastime. Do we want these children later standing up in the assembly hall and saying: "No, teacher, it starts like this: 'Oh-hoh-hey cah-han-you-see-uh-see-uh by-the daw-haw-hawns err-uh-err-ee-uh-lee-lah-lite?'"

Even worse, these wild-eyed renditions of the Sta-hah-stah-hah-span-uh-gulled bayuh-bayuh-ner-her-hers encourage the more excitable, beer-soaked, rock-oriented members of the audience to leap up and clap their hands above their heads and shout, "Wow . . . hey . . . yeah . . . go . . . baby . . . go . . ."

That isn't what Francis Scott Key had in mind.

On the other hand, some musicologists say that the melody can be traced back to England where it had different lyrics and was a drinking song.

So maybe it's not totally inappropriate for today's singers to sound as if they just downed a quart of Southern Comfort.

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