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.