O, say can you hear?

The makeover of Fort McHenry includes everything from the Marine Corps Band to Jimi Hendrix

March 05, 2011

Touch a screen at the new Fort McHenry Visitor and Education Center and the sounds of "The Star- Spangled Banner," eight different versions, spring forth.

Some feature singers who belt out the words, "the land of the free." Others are instrumentals, some jazzy, some martial, and two more are waiting in the wings.

To make it to Fort McHenry, these performances had to be serious and timely. "We ruled out any goofy versions," said Fort Superintendent Gay Vietzke, "or ones where the artists were simply seeking publicity." (She did not name names, but renditions by Roseanne Barr and, more recently, Christina Aguilera come to mind.) Our anthem, like our flag, has served as a rallying point for citizens, Ms. Vietzke said, and the changing times are echoed in the exhibit's changing tunes.

After listening to these assorted anthems, a visitor comes away reminded that we are a polyglot nation, capable of offering an anthem for almost any taste.

Historians can punch up "To Anacreon In Heaven," the drinking song that provided the melody for Francis Scott Key's lyrics. Mr. Key's "cover" to this old song is quite an improvement. Civil War buffs can summon the anthem played during the conflict by the 1st Brigade Band, although a more stirring number is the military march version played by U.S. Marine Corps Band circa 1953. A cappella singers can compare their efforts to those of the Diamond Four, whose 1898 rendition sounds authentically scratchy.

The jazziest performance, one that zipped right along, is one by Duke Ellington, recorded after World War II. It is similar to the way the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plays the anthem: with brio.

You can't start a major sporting event in America until you have sung "the home of the brave," and Whitney Houston's soaring version of the anthem, accompanied by the Florida Orchestra, at the 1991 Super Bowl is the strongest vocal performance in the exhibit. She has some pipes. The rights to another notable sporting anthem, Marvin Gaye's soulful rendition sung before the 1983 NBA All Star Game, are being tracked down. Fort McHenry officials hope to have that version playing at the birthplace of the National Anthem in the coming weeks. Also on hold pending rights approval is the bluegrass version of the anthem played by Bela Fleck and The Flecktones.

There are a couple alternative anthems in the exhibit. One is Jimi Hendrix's memorable, nearly four-minute performance at Woodstock in 1969, in which he made his electric guitar sound like the bombs bursting in air. Another is a slower, haunting, 1993 alternative rock version by Red House Painters.

Missing from this exhibit is the hometown version, one in which Baltimoreans emphasize the "O" while singing, "Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave." Some think the "O-ing" of the anthem is a sacrilege. But not Vince Vaise, the bubbly park ranger who serves as chief of interpretation at Fort McHenry. He regards it as an exclusive, well-earned right of the natives.

"Only Baltimoreans have the right to sing the 'O' in the anthem," he reasons, "because if it wasn't for the citizens of Baltimore protecting the city from the British, there wouldn't be a national anthem."

Rob Kasper

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