POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Sing, Sing, Sing the National Anthem

by David Trumbull

May 5, 2006

Sing, sing, sing.
--Louis Prima

"I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English, and I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English."
--President George W. Bush

I don't care who wants to sing a Spanish language translation of the Star-Spangled Banner, so long as we all understand that what they are singing is not our National Anthem.

When Congress, in 1931, established the National Anthem, they stipulated the words and tune known as the Star-Spangled Banner. The words, as we all know, were written by Francis Scott Key during the defense of Fort McHenry by American forces during the British attack on September 13, 1814. Those words were in English. Therefore a translation, that is to say, different words, even if expressing the same sentiments, are not the words that Congress set as the National Anthem. Change the words and it is no more the National Anthem than it would be if you sang it to a different tune.

The tune was originally set to the poem, To Anacreon in Heaven, and was, famously, or infamously, an English drinking song. The original words celebrate Bacchus the god of wine and Venus the goddess of, well...venery, all done in the manner of Anacreon, a fifth century B.C. Greek poet of the wine-women-and-song school of verse.

The profane origins of the tune notwithstanding, the Star-Spangled Banner is our National Anthem or hymn; and there is a prescribed code for its use. According to the U.S. Code Title 36 Section 301:

The composition consisting of the words and music known as the Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem. During a rendition of the national anthem, when the flag is displayed all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart; men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold the headdress at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart; and individuals in uniform should give the military salute at the first note of the anthem and maintain that position until the last note; and when the flag is not displayed, all present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed.

When it is played at a public assembly you should join in singing the National Anthem along with principal singer or orchestra whose function is to lead, not entertain, the assembly. For this reason it is inappropriate to applaud the singing of the National Anthem. It is also inappropriate to make or use sophisticated "concert" versions of the National Anthem.