Monday, May 25, 2009

Singing at Flanders Field

Do Canadians get choked up over "O' Canada"? I ask this, because aside from watching the Olympics I don't often have the opportunity to watch people of other nationalities react to their own anthems. The Olympics doesn't quite count, either, because you understand it then when some athlete from some small country, against all odds (or sometimes even in favor with the odds, but still...) manages to ascend that central podium, hoist there gold, and watch and listen as the symbols of their country are displayed in international prominence. Sometimes it's the only time these countries get to shine.

The American anthem does it for me, lots of times. Not every time, mind you, and frankly Whitney Houston's did and still does make me cringe. It isn't a pop standard, and should not be "stylized" the way everyone since here has seemed to feel the need to do. It stood on it's own very well for over a century before Whitney, and I shudder to think her version has somehow become the epitome for the "Star Spangled Banner."

Yes, in some things I'm a purist.

But back to the central point, here, in that it's become a moving piece of music. I doubt that when, in the midst of battle, Francis Scott Key penned the words to his poem he had any expectation that it would go on to such prominence in the national psyche. (If he was anything like the other writers I know now, he was probably just hoping it would be good and not end up in the trash heap somewhere.) That it has is as much a testament to thee power of the words as the sentiment they embody, something that just seems to capture much of the American mind-set as no other piece has done.

(I know there has been a movement around for years, if not decades, to replace "The Star Spangled Banner" with "America the Beautiful"... and while yes, "Banner" is at least on the surface about war, and "Beautiful" is by default a more peaceful song... there ought to be more to a national anthem than just a moving description of the landscape. A country is more than its scenery, after all.)

It also matters the occasion for which an anthem is sung. I love baseball, but it is just a game. On the other hand, hearing it sung today, Memorial Day, by a group of kids in Flanders, Belgium - where they very much appreciate that sometimes you have to fight for things such as the ideals of democracy and your country, and that on two occasions we have done that fighting for them - then it struck chords that it doesn't when being sung by some local crooner to kick of the Mets vs the Yankees. And while at the start of a baseball game it does carry reminders of history and patriotism and national pride...

... there was more to it today, sung by school children at a cemetery erected to honor those Americans who fell on foreign soil defending higher ideals. And for a moment, I paused in what I was doing, and took a moment to reflect on and be grateful for the sacrifice of people like them.

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