We Have Sung It in Many Languages

News at Home

Ralph E. Shaffer and Walter P. Coombs are professors emeriti at Cal Poly Pomona. They are writers for the History News Service.

From talk radio to the presidency, agitated Americans have expressed anger over the "desecration" of the Star Spangled Banner when undocumented residents sing it in Spanish. In the past, the anthem's translation into a foreign language was the least of the infamies that dismayed purists.The flap created by the Spanish language version is just another opportunity to bash immigrants who happen to be from the wrong countries.

The anthem for over a century has been cheapened, insulted and even besmirched by well intentioned but misguided Americans who think they can improve on the melody. Such conduct - except when it touches the immigration question - is now generally ignored, sometimes encouraged.

Although President George Bush argues that the national anthem should only be sung in English, performing it in a foreign language isn't novel. Wikipedia, that all-knowing Internet site, reports that German and Latin translations appeared in the 1860s, followed by Yiddish and French versions. The U. S. Bureau of Education printed it in Spanish in 1919 for widespread use. In those more idyllic days immigrants demonstrated their love for their new home by joyfully singing the anthem in their native tongue.

Other versions of the anthem left the words alone but altered the melody, in one case so drastically that it got the composer/conductor in trouble. When Igor Stravinsky raised his baton in Boston in 1944 you would have thought he was Roseanne Barr. A dutiful audience began to sing but, according to one report, as the strange and dissonant notes continued "eyebrows lifted, voices fluttered and the singing stopped."

Boston authorities warned Stravinsky that he was afoul of a state law that forbade rearrangement of the anthem. Music critic Albert Goldberg noted Stravinsky's version was banned in Boston and booed in Baltimore, but he escaped sanctions.

But not Karl Muck, who also conducted in Boston. His sin was not that he wrote a discordant arrangement of the tune. He didn't play it at all.

In 1918 the German native allegedly refused to lead the orchestra in a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Muck claimed that the piece was left off the program because musically it was not in accord with the serious compositions scheduled. The popular feeling was that he was pro-German. Arrest and deportation followed.

Despite the danger, Stravinsky's arrangement paved the way for a multitude of variations. Today the web holds hundreds of anthem recordings, many of them unorthodox versions of the traditional melody.

The "Star-Mangled Banner" website spotlights Jimi Hendrix' Woodstock electric guitar version, Jose Feliciano's "slow, bluesy" World Series rendition, and Marvin Gaye's 1983 NBA All-Star "soul and funk interpretation." And who can forget Roseanne Barr's interpretation at a San Diego baseball game, complete with off-key screeching and mannerisms mocking ball players?

Fortunately, Charles Ives confined his genius to variations on "America." But Carla Bley's "National Anthem" runs on for over 20 minutes, with bits of the original melody fading in and out. Talk radio is undisturbed by her blasphemy.

So how should it be played and sung? William Santelmann, long-time director of the Marine Corps Band, insisted that it be performed as written, without embellishments. Edwin Franko Goldman called for an official, government approved arrangement, played without frills from written notes. Both insisted on a uniform tempo, a plea almost universally ignored.

Their way was tried - once. In 1918, before Congress had made the anthem our official hymn, a committee approved the B flat arrangement that has plagued nearly everyone who ever tried to sing "the rockets red glare." It was adopted by the military and became standard sheet music for school bands. The War Department's Bureau of Public Relations issued a statement that "extraneous notes and florid embellishments are not necessary, nor in good taste."

But the difficulty with the B flat version persisted, and daring singers continued to add higher, unwritten notes ending "land of the free." During WWII the military officially accepted the A flat version, erroneously referred to as the "easy-to-sing" arrangement.

The next time a would-be singer desecrates the Star Spangled Banner on amateur night at the local ball park, will those who today express outrage at the audacity of a Spanish language version be as incensed? At least the Spanish version has kept the original tune and in fact has resulted in a more melodic quality utilizing the beauty of the language to create a pleasurable listening experience which many modern English versions fail to accomplish. It's shameful that the anti-immigrant crowd uses the nation's anthem to promote its xenophobic agenda.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Rob Willis - 5/11/2006

Right on point. Well said, and welcome.


elementaryhistory teacher - 5/8/2006

Your article is quite interesting. the examples you give are a fresh look at this whole issue. I do appreciate the link to my post at "History Is Elementary". I certainly hope, however, the link is not given to provide evidence of yet "another opportunity to bash immigrants who happen to be from the wrong countries." Wrong countries? That's a little inflamatory, isn't it? I think the correct terminology would be immigrants who follow the procedures that are currently in place and those that don't. I'll take it even further to state that I don't blame folks who are here illegally....our government has known there was a problem regarding illegals for several years as well as the mire of red tape that should be overhauled to make the process easier. The intent of my post is not to bash immigrants. I don't think of myself as anti-immigrant or a purist. I love the different musical interpretations of our nation's anthem. I wonder....did the 1919 translation of the anthem provided by the U.S. Bureau of Education change the meaning of the song? Did it still have the original premise regarding the battle at Ft. McHenry and the fact that the flag was still there? I wonder because that was my whole premise. The only reason why I objected to the current "new" version is many new citizens might miss out on the fabulous history behind those stirring words. It's already a shame that many current citizens have missed out.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/7/2006

A few years ago, I experimented with showing mainstream movies in my US survey class to give students a glimpse of how Americans viewed themselves at different points in the century. I'm not sure how successful that was pedagogically, but I was intrigued by how much they liked Casablanca.

The pivotal scene in the movie is the "dueling anthems" moment when the German's "Watch on the Rhine" is silenced by "La Marseillaise."

Mabye during WWII it was different but now few Americans have any inkling of those violent lyrics. However, many of the cast members in Casablanca were European born and raised, and even though most came to American volunatarily, in 1942 they were cut off from their homes and families by tyranny and war.

I suspect they did know what the lyrics meant when they sang them. In any event their pain and anger still give energy to that scene, enough that even my cynical 18 and 19 year olds were caught up in the moment.

For what it is worth, I did have my students read a translation of the Marseillaise before they watched it. I wonder if they remember?

Frederick Thomas - 5/3/2006

I do not believe that the words of our Anthem are in the least offensive. They are the celebration of a victory by a group of valiant underdogs. The falsetto British drinking song melody is something else, however.

Read the literal words to the Marseillaise, you can read some real grossness, eg

Let us go, children of the fatherland
Our day of Glory has arrived.
Against us stands tyranny,
The bloody flag is raised,
The bloody flag is raised.
Do you hear in the countryside
The roar of these savage soldiers
They come right into our arms
To cut the throats of your sons,
your country.

To arms, citizens!
Form up your battalions
Let us march, Let us march!
That their impure blood
Should water our fields...

Give me the rockets' red glare anytime over this blood bath.

John Chapman - 5/3/2006

So much righteous protest over a song translation when most Americans cannot even remember their national anthem beyond the first verse. My preference has always been "America The Beautiful", it flows better and doesn’t have annoying questions in it, five of them, as if we weren’t sure of ourselves. It speaks of brotherhood and God refining us to noble levels, instead of rockets and bombs and war and havoc found in the Star Spangled Banner - why mention all that stuff when it’s so obvious. Why not accentuate the positive instead and drop the nationalism, and celebrate nature and God and mending our flaws. This is a song that really speaks of freedom and America’s ideals.

Yet, those who want to become US citizens must learn our language, learn to assimilate into our culture, which means being able to sing the song in English. But, since we are all a nation of immigrants, except for the original natives we nearly wiped out, that doesn’t mean those aspiring to be citizens must lose their culture. In fact, it is useful for this country that those who are already in the land of the free enrich themselves with other cultures and learn other languages, as many already have.

Imperfect as our national anthem is, it is still the symbol of our nation but others should still be free to express that same freedom from the perspective of their own culture (after they have learned English and assimilated). A pasteurized and homogenized milk-white America is a diluted and weak America.

Americans will have to come to terms with the fact that diversity, multiculturalism, globalism and multilinguism are here to stay and that the American experiment continues evolve. The airwaves that are filled with hate and idiot pundits spewing xenophobic commentary and praising God at the same time are only a burp in this country’s evolution and we will hopefully one day drop the dysfunctionalism in our society. Little mention is made about the white European illegal immigrants that are crossing the border from Canada. Why? Because they are Anglos?