Hear Controversial Versions of “The Star Spangled Banner” by Igor Stravinsky, Jimi Hendrix, José Feliciano & John Philip Sousa

Debates over whether or not we should destroy or alter U.S. icons seem to turn on a crit­i­cal ques­tion: are nation­al sym­bols qua­si-reli­gious totems of some tran­scen­dent sacred order? The kind of impe­r­i­al project like­ly to end up a col­lec­tion of crum­bling mon­u­ments with every oth­er empire of the past? Or are they liv­ing emblems of a sec­u­lar repub­lic whose pri­ma­ry embod­i­ment is its peo­ple? A coun­try, like its peo­ple, that must recon­sti­tute itself with each gen­er­a­tion in order to sur­vive?

Either way, the nation’s sym­bols have always with­stood cre­ative destruc­tion, détourne­ment, and recon­tex­tu­al­iza­tion. Sub­ject­ing nation­al iconog­ra­phy to the inter­ven­tions of artists and activists restores a sense of pro­por­tion, show­ing us that our gov­ern­ment and its sym­bols belong to the peo­ple, rather than the oth­er way around. The idea is a pow­er­ful one. So much so that its expres­sion nev­er fails to excite con­tro­ver­sy. And few expres­sions have pro­voked more ire than per­for­mances of (or respons­es to) the nation­al anthem that devi­ate from the staid tra­di­tion­al arrange­ment.

We could point to very obvi­ous anthem con­tro­ver­sies, like Roseanne Barr’s irrev­er­ent 1990 ren­di­tion. But cer­tain oth­er inter­pre­ta­tions have had much more seri­ous artis­tic intent, like that of nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zen Igor Stravin­sky, whose 1944 ver­sion (top) came from his “desire to do my bit in these griev­ous times toward fos­ter­ing and pre­serv­ing the spir­it of patri­o­tism in this coun­try.” Stravinsky’s earnest ambi­tion was thwart­ed. He couldn’t help but add his sig­na­ture, in this case a dom­i­nant sev­enth chord, to the arrange­ment.

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The Boston police respond­ed by issu­ing him a warn­ing, claim­ing, we not­ed in a pre­vi­ous post, “there was a law against tam­per­ing with the nation­al anthem” (there wasn’t). Stravin­sky “grudg­ing­ly” pulled the anthem from his Boston Sym­pho­ny bill. Over twen­ty years lat­er, the blind Puer­to Rican folk singer José Feli­ciano played the anthem before the 1968 World Series in his own emo­tion­al­ly-charged style. And like Stravin­sky, he was moti­vat­ed by love of coun­try. “I had set out to sing an anthem of grat­i­tude to a coun­try that had giv­en me a chance,” he lat­er recalled, “that had allowed me, a blind kid from Puer­to Rico—a kid with a dream—to reach far above my own lim­i­ta­tions.”

Much of the coun­try did not respond in kind. Even dur­ing the per­for­mance, Feli­ciano could “feel the dis­con­tent with­in the waves of cheers and applause that spurred on the first pitch.” After­wards, he learned that “a great con­tro­ver­sy was explod­ing across the coun­try because I had cho­sen to alter my ren­di­tion.… Vet­er­ans, I was being told, had thrown their shoes at the tele­vi­sion as I sang; oth­ers ques­tioned my right to stay in the Unit­ed States.” Feli­ciano admits, “yes, it was dif­fer­ent but I promise you,” he says, “it was sin­cere.” So was the most rad­i­cal of “Star-Span­gled Ban­ner” inter­pre­ta­tions, Jimi Hendrix’s feed­back-laden ver­sion at Wood­stock the fol­low­ing year.

A vet­er­an him­self, Hen­drix wasn’t moti­vat­ed by wartime patri­o­tism or per­son­al grat­i­tude, but by a desire, per­haps, to tell the truth about what his coun­try was doing to thou­sands of peo­ple in South­east Asia—“Napalm bombs,” as he said at the time, “peo­ple get­ting burned up on TV.” It’s a sub­ject he occa­sion­al­ly touched on lyri­cal­ly; here he let the gui­tar tell it, “turn­ing the music to a lit­er­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the lyrics: bombs burst­ing in air, rock­ets light­ing up the night,” writes Andy Cush at Spin, “Hen­drix began to sly­ly use the music’s own mar­tial bom­bast to reflect the vio­lence car­ried out under his nation’s flag.” He was hard­ly the first to exploit the song’s inher­ent bom­bast.

Almost 100 years before Woodstock—before the nation­al anthem was even the nation­al anthem—one of the most icon­ic of Amer­i­can of com­posers re-arranged “The Star Span­gled Ban­ner.” John Philip Sousa (who would go on to write “Stars and Stripes For­ev­er”) con­ceived the song in the “man­ner of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Over­ture,” New York­er music crit­ic Alex Ross tells us. (You can stream the Wag­ner­ian adap­ta­tion of “The Star Span­gled Ban­ner” here.) He was “young and lit­tle known at that time,” Ross remarks, “and his sly­ly Wag­ner­ian take on the future nation­al anthem was eclipsed by the famous­ly mediocre and expen­sive Cen­ten­ni­al March that Wag­n­er him­self penned for the occa­sion.” There’s no indi­ca­tion Sousa’s arrange­ment pro­voked a nation­al upset. But it did set a prece­dent for what we might as well call an Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of musi­cians alter­ing the anthem, using it to speak not to Fran­cis Scott Key’s Amer­i­ca, but to their own.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Isaac Asi­mov: “I Am Crazy, Absolute­ly Nuts, About our Nation­al Anthem” (1991)

William Shat­ner Sings O Cana­da (and Hap­py Cana­da Day)

Slavoj Žižek Exam­ines the Per­verse Ide­ol­o­gy of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Brian Gay says:

    Great arti­cle. I believe that artis­tic expres­sion of this song is dif­fer­ent than a dis­re­spect­ful boy­cott of the flag (i.e. burn­ing or kneel­ing) because of the key word you used; intent.

    When peo­ple burn a flag or kneel at the anthem, they are per­form­ing a dis­re­spect­ful act pur­pose­ly to draw atten­tion to a cause that they believe in. When some­one sing/play the Nation­al Anthem in their own way, I am sure it is being done to show their indi­vid­ual inter­pre­ta­tion of the anthem, thus show­ing their indi­vid­ual free­dom in a respect­ful way. Take Jimi Hen­drix for exam­ple. The way I under­stand it is that he played the anthem in a counter cul­ture style to show that peace is more Amer­i­can than the war­mon­ger­ing Amer­i­can lead­ers who per­pe­trat­ed this war on the oth­er side of the world.

    I am not sure what Roseanne Bar­r’s intent was, but I think we can all agree it was awful.

  • Tony says:

    What! Where’s Mar­vin Gaye’s ver­sion from an NBA all star game in the 70’s…it IS the best!

  • ROBERTO says:

    Exis­ten difer­entes espa­cios y foros de man­i­festación de sen­tires y pen­samien­tos.
    La ver­sión de Stravin­sky muy bue­na, lo mis­mo que la de Feli­ciano, sen­ti­da, emo­cio­nante, pop­u­lar.
    Ambas hechas con respeto. Ade­cuadas a la ocasión.
    Pero Hen­dricks hizo una afrenta musi­cal, fuera de lugar, una ver­dadera agre­sión musi­cal a los EEUU, hor­ren­da, una basura…de alguien que no ama a su país y que con esto parece odi­ar la músi­ca.
    Resen­ti­dos anti-sis­tema, pop­ulis­tas, izquierdis­tas con su batal­la cul­tur­al marx­ista.
    Una pata­da jus­to ahí donde más te duele.
    Si existier­an los jue­ces musi­cales lo con­denarían a var­ios años de cár­cel.

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