City law serious about anthem

Song: A 1915 ordinance still on the books requires respect for `The Star-Spangled Banner.'

December 01, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

If you want to stay on the right side of the law in Baltimore, birthplace of the national anthem, better not belt out the song any old way.

Stand up.

Don't even think about dancing.

And just to be on the safe side, sing all four verses.

Under an ordinance passed in 1915 and still on the books in Baltimore, offending renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" can bring criminal charges and a fine of up to $100.

Oh say, can you see ... a municipal cash cow?

If only the strapped city had collected from the 88.7 million Orioles fans who have attended home games - and sung just one verse of the song - since major-league baseball returned in 1954.

"Line up the paddy wagons outside Camden Yards," Susan Goering, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said jokingly.

"This is amusing but unenforceable," she said. "It is ironic that a song that is representative of American freedoms around the world would be subject to these silly restrictions."

Even if the little-known law could stand up to free-speech challenges, living up to some parts of it could be tough.

"I think we'd probably get fined by Major League Baseball if we tried to do all four verses," said Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka. "That would go against their attempts to shorten the games."

The ban on dancing to the anthem, on the other hand, probably isn't too hard to take, even for the most disco-minded patriot.

"It gets my toe tapping, but I never thought to dance to it," said Vincent Vaise, a park ranger at Fort McHenry, where the gallantly streaming flag inspired Francis Scott Key's poem.

The ordinance apparently has not been enforced for decades. It was unknown to Vaise and other Fort McHenry officials, who, following the advice of a National Park Service lawyer, invite visitors to stand for the anthem but don't require them to do so.

Alan Gephardt, who portrays Key at Fort McHenry, the Smithsonian and schools, had never heard of the law. Nor had Bea Hardy, director of the Maryland Historical Society library, whose collection includes the original poem Key wrote in 1814.

The ordinance was passed 101 years later "in an effort to preserve the dignity and entity of `The Star-Spangled Banner,'" according to news accounts of the time. It was proposed by a group of patriotic societies, including the Boy Scouts and Daughters of the American Revolution.

The law decrees that the song be performed as "an entire and separate composition or number, without embellishments of national or other melodies."

Whether "entire" means all four verses have to be sung is open to interpretation. It could simply mean that the song, or portions of it, must be performed as a separate entitity - apart from other tunes, said Avery Aisenstark, director of the city's Department of Legislative Reference.

"I think you're going to have to find the city solicitor from 1915" for clarification, Aisenstark said.

Also unclear is whether the elongated "O" that Orioles fans shout during the end of the anthem would qualify as an illicit embellishment. "If the `O' is melodic, it might be considered" a violation, Aisenstark said.

The ordinance also prohibits dancing to the song or using it for an exit march. Anyone within earshot - including musicians performing the anthem - must stand.

Violating the law is a misdemeanor for the performer and the owner of the theater, restaurant or other location where the offending rendition took place.

Judging from news articles from 1915, no one raised any free-speech objections when the city adopted the law. The only dissenter mentioned was Daniel Feldmann, leader of the Park Band, who was opposed because medleys combining the anthem with other songs were crowd-pleasers.

The ordinance was amended two years later to require that the song be played at the start of "all entertainments" in the city, including theater productions, concerts and movies. That provision lasted only for the duration of World War I, however.

The law came about 16 years before the song was designated the national anthem, at a time when patriotic fervor was running especially high, Hardy and Gephardt said.

Uneasy with increased immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, worried about the world war they were about to join, Americans looked for ways to assert a national identity - from forming patriotic organizations to renaming sauerkraut `liberty cabbage.'

"That ordinance kind of fits right in with that kind of real serious need that we become one homogenous people," Gephardt said.

Today, even flag-waving patriots say they can't imagine enforcing the law. But some, fed up with renditions ranging from Jimi Hendrix's guitar licks to Roseanne Barr's crotch-grabbing, praise the spirit behind it.

"If you look at it today, you're fortunate to get people to stand. You're fortunate to get people to place their hands over their hearts," said Tom Davis, state adjutant for the American Legion. "This is the home of the national anthem, and maybe Maryland should think about that."

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