Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Singing Together

I have a bee in my bonnet or a fly in my ointment or ants in my pants or termites in my temple. Anyway, I’m bugged.

I have had the good fortune to attend five Atlanta Braves Spring Training games in five days. Tonight we’ll see number six and tomorrow we’ll head home. That’s all good. This Saturday I hope to post an article about my impressions of this year’s Braves team.

So what’s bugging me? Singing—that’s what’s bugging me.

As everyone knows, before any major American sporting event, the National Anthem is sung. In my humble opinion, the Star-Spangled Banner was a bad choice for our National Anthem. For one thing, it’s more about the flag than about the nation. For another thing, it’s hard to sing. America the Beautiful or God Bless America (church-state concerns notwithstanding) would have been much better choices.

But, as my wife is so fond of reminding me, it is what it is.

It could be worse. It could be God Bless the U.S.A. (If it were, I reckon that we couldn't even stand up until Lee Greenwood sang the phrase "I'd gladly stand to you...").

But I digress.

I remember when, before a ball game, the public address announcer would say something like, “Ladies and gentlemen, to honor America, please rise and join in singing our National Anthem as it is played by organist Magic Fingers Nelson.” The important phrase was “join in singing.” And we would sing. It would sound rather pitiful, but most of us would join in and sing our National Anthem. Together. As Americans. E pluribus Unum.

It’s not that way anymore. Before each ball game over these past five days, the announcer has said, “Ladies and gentlemen, to honor America, please rise as Miss Hitter of Impossibly High Notes 2004 performs our National Anthem.” The important word is “performs.” And we have all dutifully stood, removed our hats, looked toward the flag, and listened as the singer “performed” the song. A few game souls tried to sing along, but most of us didn’t even try. After all, we had not been invited to do so and we couldn’t have followed the semi-professional rendering had we wanted to.

This is wrong. The singing of the National Anthem should promote national unity. We should blend our imperfect voices in an imperfect harmony and thereby celebrate our citizenship in this wonderfully imperfect country. It is high time that the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner stopped being some obscure or even famous singer’s moment in the spotlight and went back to being a group sing-in. Such singing celebrates and increases our unity in diversity.

Contrast our non-singing of the National Anthem with what happens during the seventh inning stretch. (As an aside, I should note my irritation with the announcement that they make at Disney’s Champion Field: “It’s time for the seventh inning sing-along,” they say. For Pete [Rose’s] sake, it’s been the seventh inning stretch ever since baseball started at the moment of creation [“In the big inning”—“In the beginning”—get it? Sorry.] Why not just call it the seventh inning stretch? But I digress—again.).

Anyway, what happens during the seventh inning stretch? Well, we stand, we stretch, and then—we sing! We sing that great old baseball song Take Me Out to the Ballgame. We sing it with gusto. Some, who have had way too much of the most expensive beverage that they sell at baseball games, sing with too much gusto. But the thing is that we all sing together. We sing badly for the most part but we sing. We sing to celebrate being together. We sing to celebrate our common love for a great game. We sing to celebrate baseball.

That’s the way that the National Anthem should be done, albeit with a good deal more reverence and respect.

This all of course also has something to do with the ways that we do church. I am always saddened when I look out on our congregation on a Sunday morning and see a high percentage of our folks not singing, even when we are singing their “favorites” like Amazing Grace or Because He Lives or How Great Thou Art. I am troubled that so many church folks don’t seem to understand, despite our best efforts to teach them, that worship is not a spectator sport and that our congregational singing, even when it amounts to making a joyful noise, binds us together as the Body of Christ.

In the matter of our worship wars, perhaps people should not insist on maintaining a worship style that they claim to love but in which they refuse to participate.

The best way to sing the National Anthem is together.

The best way to sing hymns or praise songs or choruses is together.


Tom from Indiana said...


I used to like to tell people that I performed with the Oak Ridge Boys at old Fulton County Stadium (I think it was in 1984). After their initial shock I shared with them it was opening day, that I was in the backrow of the upper level, and the song was the Star Spangled Banner.

Hymn singing is fine too... Did I tell you about performing with George Beverly Shea and Ethel Waters at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville?

The Beast said...


Mark Dever speaks to this issue in "The Deliberate Church." He gives an example of how many worship leaders will encourage us to "close our eyes and just become one with God." Although certainly not a heretical idea, it misses the point of corporate worship and the unity you have described.

Bill said...

One of the things about being in a military band: the National Anthem is a big part of your life. I'd guess I perform it in public probably, on average, around 175-200 times a year, and have done so for almost 23 years.

As the announcer for the Field Band I'm always careful to introduce it with these words: "Please rise and join us in the singing of our National Anthem." Since I stand in front of the band, over to the left side of the stage (the "lectern" side), I get a special treat as I can hear the audience singing up close. Just about every concert, the folks sing with great gusto and energy. What they lack in vocal technique, they more than make up for in emotion...there aren't a lot of tunes that I know of that have people in tears by the end of the first strain. Amazing to see. I remember one gig we did, 4000 people in the audience, and their singing was such that you could physically feel the tune's power coming out of the seats as we played...and, at moments I'll never forget during the anthem, they actually sang louder than we played (we meaning 65 instrumentalists and 28 singers).

But, like I said, I'm always careful to ask the folks to "join with us." So, yeah, we're performing it, but so are they.

The tune isn't the easiest to sing, to be sure. But in just about every historical reference, the music (John Stafford Smith's "Anacreon in Heaven") is called, in so many words, "a popular English tavern tune." And most tavern tunes, or any tunes for that matter, don't get "popular" unless they're...well, sung by lots of folks.

Francis S. Key, in addition to his fame as the anthem's author, had a fine career as a Christian layman, being an Anglican Sunday School teacher and a National Secretary of the American Sunday School Union. I recommend his 1817 hymn
"Lord, With Glowing Heart I'd Praise Thee."

To those who would diss the anthem as "militaristic," I would respond: Put yourself in Key's shoes. Your country has only been in existence for a little over a generation, and over forty or so years has been constantly harassed by the very empire from which it gained independence. Finally that empire attacks your land. You are taken prisoner by the King's army and held aboard a ship of the Royal Navy, which on a September night in 1814 is engaged in bombarding the dickens out of the city of Baltimore, and its defenses. When the morning sun rises, and the soldiers of Ft. McHenry do what they do every morning...raise the flag and fire a cannon shot (something still done every day by US Army Soldiers in Army posts worldwide) are was Key.

It's not an easy tune to sing, for sure. But I like to think that our nation's history hasn't actually been an "easy tune" either.

(Shameless Plug: on Brethren's fourth CD we sing the Gaither Vocal Band's arrangement of the THAT rocks:-D)