Oh, Say Can You Sing The Words to That Song?

When singing "The Star Spangled Banner," I'd always had to switch octaves at least twice: once before, and once after the part about the rockets' red glare. Until this minute, I thought I had a hopelessly narrow singing range. Now I discover I can sing this song all in one key, although I have no idea what that key is. It must be a key not popular with musicians, because I have never been able to sing it in the same octave in public, when somebody else chooses the key.

Then I started thinking about the words. They belong in the same category as Christmas carols: You don't think about the words, you just start right in singing and the words fall into place as the melody draws you along.

With our national anthem, though, the melody does not draw you along because you are straining to reach the notes. Even before that, after the first two lines things become hazy. How do the words go?

This is not simply my problem. I checked. After the challenge arose this time, I gave it my full attention and tried to remember the words. I had to keep starting over: "Ooohsaycanyouseee, by the dawn'searleelight...." I got it pretty much down but not completely in the right order, though I probably wouldn't recognize the right order anyway. Neither the dictionary nor the encyclopedia provided the words, only the history of the song.

I called my sister, who knows these things. She started right in: "Ooooooohsaycanyouseee, by the dawn'searleelight...." We sang along for a while, then she said, "Wait, don't talk, let me try it by myself." I scribbled while she sang, trying to integrate the scribbles into what I already had.

We couldn't agree on the third line. We did agree on the part about the rockets' red glare, where you have to reach high or switch octaves. At this point she said she was a little distracted; she had just come from the shower and was trying to figure this out dripping wet.

But she went looking for a book with the words, which she couldn't find even among the hundreds of books in her dozens of bookcases.

Then she relinquished the Christmas-carol method and tried logic. "OK now, let's think this through: They could see the flag with the broad stripes and bright stars when they went to bed at 'twilight's last gleaming,' " she began, "and then in the morning....?" She proved that no matter how smart you are, logic does not always work. Or at least not when you're just out of the shower.

We gave up. I called the library, announcing to the woman who answered that this was a little Saturday-morning quiz. No hint of a chuckle. No temptation to try it herself. Only a prim, "We don't have that kind of information at this desk. I'll be glad to connect you to the music department."

The kid in the music department was more simpatico. When I started singing the anthem to demonstrate the problem, he started singing right along. But we both quit after what we thought might be the third line, and he went for a book.

THE truth of the matter lies in the selection of our national anthem, a subject that has received much attention. Many of us think that the official song of the United States ought to be "America, the Beautiful." The words and music flow with images of peace and prosperity rather than war. Or we might try "My Country 'Tis of Thee."

The point here is to get away from a national anthem inspired by an obscure battle during the War of 1812 - or any battle - and accent the positive about our heritage and what we stand for. And while we're at it, adopt a catchier tune, one we could hum all the way through without having to stop and write an essay.

All right, now, here's an easy one. Who can recite the Pledge of Allegiance all the way through without stopping?

The Star-Spangled Banner

Oh, say, can you see by the dawn's early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,

O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The song was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. Key, a lawyer on a truce mission, had been deeply moved by the British bombardment of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore Harbor. The melody is from "To Anacreon in Heaven," a drinking song written by British composer John Stafford Smith in the late 1700s. "The Star Spangled Banner" was played on military occasions in the United States starting in 1895. It became America's national anthem by an act of Congress in 1931.

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