Being 9/11, it seems appropriate for this week’s Free Ride to take us to Fort McHenry for some musing on the Star-Spangled Banner. As difficult as our national anthem is to sing, most stadium or arena fans have no trouble belting out those last two lines:
Or, as they sing in Atlanta, the home of the Braves. On most occasions, though, that last word is drowned out by the applause and cheers of the crowd. Not so on October 7, 1968 in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, where the World Series game between the Tigers and Cardinals started with a rendition by Jose Feliciano. He gave the crowd their first taste of a variation on the theme, altering the melody with a bluesy feel. The end of his version garnered only a smattering of applause, with quite a bit of booing mixed in. Tony Kubek, the announcer, told Feliciano that he had really stirred up a commotion, especially among veterans, who were said to be throwing their shoes in disgust. The mood changed over time, though, as the Tigers invited Feliciano back this summer for Ernie Harwell Appreciation Day. The blind guitarist sang the same version he did in 1968, this time to a delighted crowd that roared in appreciation, drowning out his last brave word.
Ten months after Feliciano first cracked opened the door for artistic expression of the anthem, another guitarist threw the door wide open, at Max Yasgur’s farm near the town of Woodstock, NY. This multi-day “Exposition of Peace and Music” concluded with Jimi Hendrix ending his 9 AM Monday set with a screaming psychadelic version of the anthem, followed by Hey Joe. The lyrical image of a guy walking around with a gun in his hand looking to shoot his old lady, coming right on the heels of the Stratocaster sounds of bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the morning light that peace had not quite made it into the Woodstock world of 1969.
Thirty-nine years later, our imagery includes far more than the red glare of rockets lighting up our sky. The sight of bombs bursting in air are giving proof to things that go way beyond our flag’s persistent presence. Now, burned into our collective memory are the images of planes bursting into flame as they crash into skyscrapers. The 1812 fight against the British army over expansion into Indian territory was a much simpler deal than today’s fight against Al Quaida over expansion into the hearts and minds of a troubled world. Today some church folks in the home of the brave and land of the free are glaring red as they fight that fight by burning the Koran. I think I’ll join other church folks who are fighting that fight by reading the Koran. Trying to understand my neighbor feels like a better use of my freedom than making books burst into flame. Oh say, can you see what I’m saying?
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.