The music of democracy is open to interpretation DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

July 17, 1992|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau of The Sun

NEW YORK -- Compared with many of the tasks at the Democratic National Convention, it is one of the more difficult: singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," with its almost unsingable vocal range, before thousands of delegates whose collective musical tastes seem to lean to the chanting of candidates' names.

Adding to the difficulty is the historical reality that the anthem is really a fairly modern Republican institution, written 170 years ago in Baltimore but given national status by Herbert Hoover only 60 years ago (Republican Hoover, of course, made only one real contribution to the Democratic Party -- a disastrous tenure that opened the door for Franklin D. Roosevelt).

The Democrats, however, are a modern bunch attuned to symbolism, and President Bush's ability to batter them last election on the issue of flag-burning has apparently left a mark. They clearly have given some thought to how the anthem is presented.

Performances range from a seven-minute rhapsody by Aretha Franklin (including one whole minute devoted to that paragon of family values, the word "home") to more modest but striking efforts by opera singer Marilyn Horne (about two minutes) and the Harlem Boys Choir (one minute, 20 seconds).

"You are looking at interpretive singers, but none that are going to shock," said Anthony DeCurtis, the record-review editor at Rolling Stone magazine. "They will give the tried and true an air of freshness, and that's what the Democrats are trying to do at the moment."

Delegates had mixed feelings about the performers. "Aretha was outstanding," said Jim Simmons, of Bucks County, Pa. "The others didn't make an impression."

That view, however, wasn't unanimous.

"I liked the Harlem Boys Choir -- they were traditional, with a nice harmony," said George Yost, a Midland, Mich., husband of a delegate. "It was written one way, and that's how it should be -- that's just my opinion. Others may feel differently."

Aretha's significance, Mr. Simmons noted, extended beyond her vocal qualities. Unlike Ms. Horne and the Harlem Boys Choir, which opened the proceedings around 5 p.m., Aretha was a prime-time attraction put on the air about 8 p.m.

"We don't hammer out platforms anymore, the selection of the candidate has already been done, but you have Aretha," Mr. Simmons said. "So people may say, 'I like her, leave that [television broadcast] on.'"

Jim Carnohorn, a Des Moines, Iowa, delegate and a teacher, said he was particularly touched by 12-year-old Reggie Jackson of South Carolina, who gave a stirring rendition of "America the Beautiful" Monday night. But technically, that falls outside the scope of the anthem evaluation.

Some delegates didn't really find anyone to their taste.

"You must realize, I feel they did everything better when I was young," said Ruth Moss, a delegate from Sorrento, Maine, age 68. "You don't have the humility today."

Some delegates asked that their opinions be withheld from print for fear of offending others.

Perhaps the most politically correct, and partisan, view was expressed by Holly Kaleczyc, a a national committeewoman from Helena, Mont.

"I just like hearing it different ways; it speaks to different people -- that's what music is," she said. "Ask at the Republican convention, they'll all want it one way, they see it one way, do it one way, and they are sure it's the right way. It just shows they are unwilling to change and intolerant of differences."

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