Firstly, I’d like to wish a very Happy Independence Day to everyone! Being a highly biased American, I absolutely love this holiday. The cookouts, the camping, the colors, the fireworks, and the parades are all absolutely excellent. It’s a great day to enjoy our amazing nation and take in all it has to offer. It’s also a day to remember how lucky we are to have freedom, to have a voice in our own lives and to be able to do as we please. In that context, it’s also worthwhile to thank those currently in and those who have served in our military – they’re the reason why we can celebrate today anyway.
So, in the spirit of both the 4th of July and the musical nature of this blog, it is totally appropriate to check out some patriotic music.
The Star-Spangled Banner
It has been argued that the national anthems of various other countries are musically superior to our own. “O Canada” (Canada) and “Il Canto degli Italiani” (Italy) are often cited for their excellent melodies and sing-able lyrics. However, in my highly biased mind, I don’t see the faults in The Star-Spangled Banner. Vocally difficult to perform (over an octave range is covered), the song often garners a bad reputation thanks to the poor singers who attempt the piece. Countless times, I’ve watched sporting events (in person and televised) only to hear an ear-crushing version of the song that ruins both the anthem and the song.
Yet the touching power of the music still manages to instill a great sense of reverence and pride when played. It is stunning to watch people remove their headgear, placed hands upon hearts, and sing in unison while looking at the flag. Done with a large crowd, the quality of the primary singer becomes unimportant; a crowd can easily carry the tune.
However, when The Star-Spangled Banner is appropriately done, the anthem is stunning. Soaring vocals and emotional phrasing can capture an untold beauty and power that is hidden in the lyrics. While many have individual preferences for version (including that of guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix), I really only see one choice: Whitney Houston’s 1991 Super Bowl performance. (See video below) True emotion flows throughout the song, causing goose bumps to rise on all those in earshot. Even more impressive, no cracked notes appear at the end of the song (where many inferior singers fall flat). Perhaps the most powerful element of the song comes in the final verse, “And the home of the brave.” Here, Houston simply dominates and unleashes the core power of her voice. It’s amazing, and should be required viewing for naturalization.
God Bless America
In the wake of the September 11th terror attacks, Irving Berlin’s God Bless America gained a renewed following. The song’s touching lyrics combined with carefully performed vocals can call forth a combination of comfort and pride. The idea of a “home sweet home” is particularly worthwhile, as it combines a welcoming voice and an individualized joy.
While I criticize Celine Dion for her often-cheesy songs, her voice has a generally high quality; it is this voice that carries my favorite popular version of God Bless America. With light-yet-powerful singing, Dion (a Canadian) manages to outclass American singers who attempt the song. By keeping a slow tempo and never losing sight of the song’s touching qualities, this version of the song is surely a modern classic.
Unfortunately, my favorite version of God Bless America does not have a link. Instead, it is the experience of being in a spontaneous rendition in a large crowd that stands tall in my mind. Without warning, the song can appear, and the lyrics (easily remembered) slowly crawl across the mass of people until every voice is united near the end. This sort of singing truly shows the universality of the song (in a way that no single singer can capture).
Both The Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America capture some of the greatest patriotic music in the American canon. Properly executed, these become true experiences worth remembering for a lifetime.