Saturday, July 18, 2009

Oh Say Can You Hear?

Historically, one of my favorite parts of the Major League Baseball all-star game has been the pre-game introductions. As a kid, there was something thrilling in the enshrinement of a baseball pantheon; I can't think of many other instances in life where the best individuals in any given endeavor are symmetrically placed on a white chalk line and then introduced to thousands of cheering onlookers. Following the introductions, I would enjoy the singing of the American and Canadian anthems--not so much because I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the War of 1812 or what it means to stand on guard for Canada, but because I liked to shout out the names of the players that were given close-ups. Hours spent studying my card collection would pay off in these all too brief moments.

I have continued through the years to enjoy player introductions, but this year the television presentation of the anthem singing left a lot to be desired. I suppose some would not object to the two-minute close-up of Sheryl Crow, but I don't think she had a good enough first half to warrant that much screen time (and I thought the singing itself was particularly uninspiring. Maybe her ex-beau isn't the only one past their prime). And in a moment of diplomatic insensitivity, the network cut entirely away from the Canadian anthem, which was a piped-in recorded version instead of a live performance. (This led to an uproar in Canada, though of course, nobody in American even noticed).

These observations have led me to further reflect on the practice of singing and playing the national anthem at sporting events. Now, I realize it might be trite and cliche to analyze the pros and cons of this phenomena, as people have already been doing that for years (I remember an episode of Mr. Belvedere where Bob Uecker's character gets in trouble for editorializing against the practice), but I can't help myself. On the plus side, there is something to be said for the show of unity that the ritual inspires, and there are now very few times when a mass of people in a public space demonstrate good old-fashioned decorum. On the other hand, the significance of any ritual is diminished by repetition, and there is something odd about the display taking place only at sporting events and not at, say, plays. And finally, I remain convinced that to sing only the opening verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is absurd-- this verse serves only as a set up for the further verses and ends with a equivocal (and clearly not rhetorical) question, rather than any kind of declaration of triumph or celebration. One other negative--for as much as the ritual may be a unifying prospect, it is rarely communal, in that most often people don't join in singing.

However, anyone who has been to a Major League Baseball game knows that while most people stand with open eyes and closed mouths for "The Star Spangled Banner," they will usually join in singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch (and in Milwaukee, follow that up with tens of thousands of people joining in with "The Beer Barrel Polka"). Based on the enthusiasm with which people embrace this tradition, I see the seeds in place for something much greater.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post lamenting "The Day the Music Really Died," pointing out that A) People don't sing communally anymore, and B) People don't really know common songs anymore. What I would like to see happen is for a Great American Songbook to be reborn though public events. Every event of any significance, sporting or otherwise, would begin with an appropriate (or perhaps completely random) sing-along. Instead of "The Star Spangled Banner," everyone would stand and sing along with Gershwin's "Summertime." Some people would be "too cool," or too timid to join in, but over time I predict that resistance would give way, and we would rediscover elements of our culture that have gone dormant. And really, what could be more patriotic than that?


Blogger GINA said...

two thoughts: at a recent red sox game, adam couldn't understand why we weren't singing the beer barrel polka. (he had never been to a MLB game outside milwaukee.) our friend and i just stared at him and laughed, having never heard of this wonderful tradition.

second, louisa has a book called 'the great american songbook.' it's a picture book, really, with lots of american nostalgia and the lyrics to everything from 'camptown races' to 'sweet betsy from pike.' i realized the other day when singing them to her that there is no way she will learn any of these songs unless i sing them to her. she'll presumably learn the patriotic ones in school.

9:36 AM  

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