The Star-Spangled Banner

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This podcast is part of our Rupture, Crisis and Transformation series looking at new perspectives in the field of US Studies, drawn from the event of the same name at Birkbeck, University of London. It is the keynote presentation from world-renowned author Caryl Phillips.

The conference organiser Anna Hartnell, explains

Anna Hartnell: Caryl Phillips is a major contemporary writer whose large body of fiction and non-fiction explores various aspects of his own Caribbean, British and now American identities. Though coming in from a different perspective from Wai Chee Dimock [the other keynote speaker at the conference, whose presentation you can find here], he has been involved in thinking about the United States, in various de-centered ways, that are really helpful for this particular conference.

Bart Moore-Gilbert: Caryl is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking writers around today. Born in the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, he was brought up in Leeds and studied Literature at Oxford before moving eventually to the US. He has worked for a number of institutions in the US, and is currently professor of English at Yale. He is actually a colleague of our first keynote today.

Caryl’s complex background of multiple cultural affiliations have given him a very distinctive and authoritative perspectives on the range of issues which are germane to this conference, including the ways in which racial, class, national diasporas, and national identities, get re-articulated in times of rupture, crisis and transformation. He has explored these preoccupations in a wide range of genres, including drama, fiction, screenplays and a variety of non-fictional modes, notably autobiography, travel writing and literal criticism, genres which characteristically co-exist in a relation of productive tension and collaboration in much of his work. This dual track pattern of output is reflected in his two most recent books, the novel ‘In the Falling Snow’ of 2009 and the non-fiction collection ‘Colour me English’ of 2011.

The importance of Caryl’s work has been recognized in a number of prestigious awards, including the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, James Tate Black Memorial Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. So distinguished is Caryl’s CV that I thought I had to find one blot on it and eventually I discovered that he is a passionate supporter of Leeds United. [Laughter] But we can forgive him that, I’m sure. So, the title of Caryl’s talk is ‘The Star Spangled Banner‘ and I think this is going to offer a writerly rather than academic perspective on some of the new directions in US Studies, which are suggested by notions of crises, rupture and transformation. So, please give a big hand to Caryl Phillips. [Applause]

Caryl Phillips: Those of us who grew up in Britain have been spared the ordeal of having to hear the dreary tones of the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’, on any kind of a regular basis. Dating back to 1619, the author of the national anthem is unknown, but the anthem first appeared in a published version in 1744. I’m just about old enough to remember when God Save the Queen was played at the end of films in the cinema. At such moments, we were expected to stand to attention, before filing out of the auditorium and onto the streets. Mercifully, this practice became obsolete before I was out of short trousers. In recent years, I’ve seldom had to endure the drone of the national anthem. As a nation, we hear it before the kick-off of England football matches. We also hear it on the rare occasions, at least prior to 2012, that a British athlete won a gold medal at an athletics championship or the Olympics. We might hear a snatch of it on the news whenever the monarch turns up on an official visit. But the fact is, God Save the Queen probably reached the height of its popularity during the heyday of the British Empire when nearly all the colonial territories utilised it as their national theme tune. However, with the onset of twentieth century decolonisation, God Save the Queen was quickly replaced by new national anthems in Africa, in Asia, in the Caribbean, in Australasia and Canada. These days, its ponderous beat is no longer globally ubiquitous.

On the other hand, the Star Spangled Banner seems to be heard everywhere. The lyrics have been taken of the poem The Defense of Fort McHenry that was written exactly two hundred years ago in 1814. The author, the 35-year old lawyer and poet named Francis Scott Key, wrote the poem after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry at the Chesapeake Bay by ships of the British Royal Navy during the War of 1812. Ironically enough, the poem was soon set to the tune of a well-known British song and renamed The Star-spangled Banner, a phrase taken from the opening stanza of the poem. In 1889, the increasingly popular song was recognized for official use by the United States Navy at all flag raising ceremonies. And some forty years later, on the third of March 1931, President Herbert Hoover declared it the national anthem of the United States of America.

The National Anthem is sung at every baseball game, before every basketball game, before football games and hockey games. It is also sung at many large public gatherings. The Star-Spangled Banner is a notoriously difficult song to sing because of its wide range – it spans an octave and a half. However, with watery eyes and hands over hearts both the featured singers and the audiences never seem to tire of pouring heart and soul into an anthem which speaks both of love of nation and their belief in the sanctity in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

In the presence of the anthem, in fact every national anthem, one is expected to comport oneself in a dignified manner. United States Code 36 USC, a statutory suggestion with no penalties associated with violations, states that during a rendition of the US national anthem, when the flag is displayed, all those present – except those in uniform – to stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold the headdress at the left shoulder, the left hand being over the heart. When the flag is not displayed, all present should face towards to music and act in the same manner as if the flag were displayed. United States code 36 USC may be a suggestion and not enforceable law, but woe betide those who go out of their way to baulk these traditions.

On the wall of my office at home I have a poster of the sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos, taken at the Mens 200m ceremony during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. As the now iconic photograph shows, both men have their hands raised in a clenched fist salute. Their heads are bowed, they stand without shoes during the playing of the national anthem. Even as a ten year old boy, I fully understood that by making their human rights protest, with the soundtrack of the national anthem and the United States flag fluttering in the breeze, they risked bringing a opprobrium down on their heads. And indeed, this proved to be the case, for both athletes were sent home in disgrace.

However, what if you are the artist who is supposed to play the anthem and, like Tommy Smith and John Carlos, you feel, let’s just say, jaded, with the tradition it comes out of and the values it supposed to represent. As a performer one can of course protest by distorting the performance of the anthem in some ways as opposed to rising to the occasion flushed with patriotic glee. Certainly distortion has played its part in recent interpretations, although we know the devotional performance has predominated.

I would like to look, briefly, at two distortions of the national anthems, one devotional interpretation, and then consider if there might not actually be an alternative to this distortion, devotion axis.

In 1969, in the music festival that came to be known as Woodstock, the guitarist Jimi Hendrix played his own now famous version of The Star-Spangled Banner – a rendition that was generally perceived to be a protest against the Vietnam War. He bent and he twisted the song in such a manner it was clear he was working outside of any familiar interpretation. To his fans, Hendrix’s performance was wonderfully disrespectful, incorporating sonic effects to emphasise the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air. However, Hendrix’s tampering with the anthem inevitably wrangled many people, especially so given that it was being performed in the contentious age of civil rights, of Vietnam and the military draft. When quizzed by the television talk show host Dick Havoc and asked to explain what exactly his outlandish delivery meant to convey, Hendrix shrugged his shoulders and claimed, somewhat unconvincingly, that he did not mean any harm by it.

Really?

In 1968, a year before Woodstock, the Puerto Rican singer and guitarist José Feliciano, clearly not protesting about anything, clearly strung a blues-style, slow version of the anthem before game five of the World Series, but all hell broke loose. There was national outrage at this exotic deviation from the norm. Only a year later, despite his protestations to the contrary, Jimi Hendrix knew exactly what he was doing when he picked up his electric guitar and played his opening dischordant chords.

In 1990, in a baseball game between the San Diego Padres and the Cincinnati Reds, Roseanne Barr gave us her own distortion of the anthem, which sparked predictable outrage. Unlike Jimi Hendrix, her disruption of the national anthem did not appear to be motivated by political passion. Nor was it a response to the social conditions of the time. She was, and she is, a comedienne and she was simply trying to be funny, and poke fun at the often off-key devotional interpretations of The Star-Spangled Banner. Furthermore, in her spitting and crotch-grabbing gestures at the conclusion of the anthem, she was satirising the hyper-masculine vulgarity that surrounds much American sports. The then president George H. W. Bush called her performative screeching disgraceful, which prompted Barr to compare her treatment by the media to the political witchhunt that was visited upon Jane Fonda when she travelled to North Vietnam in 1972.

Barr was utilising a somewhat self-serving analogy, but the whole episode – like the episode with Hendrix, merely emphasized the degree to which this two hundred year old song is deeply connected to national pride and identity. Whatever one’s motives, comic or otherwise, any transgression, however innocently meant, that might be preceived of as being disrespectful, will win you no friends.

There seem to me, in general, to be total de-politicised, sugar-coated performances which prioritise vocal gymnastics over clarity of content. Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson and countless others seem keen to simply blast away. In the end, as the last dramatic notes begin to fade, one is left with the impression that these performances all sound pretty much the same. However, even more unsettling than this unbecoming rush to breathless octave surfing, is the willingness of performers to gleefully endorse the excesses of American foreign policy by reminding us of the military origins of the anthem. It almost goes without saying that many of these diva interpretations have been delivered by Afro-Americans who in 1814, those were certainly not living in the ‘land of the free’. Today, they continue to live in a modern ‘home of the brave’ that is something less than a home for many who feel both disadvantaged and disenfranchised. I am not asking these performers to pump a clenched first ,or riff on an electric guitar, or screech the words, but their total capitulation to the dominant discourse, their eagerness to slavishly serve, the question of old tradition, was often disturbing to witness.

Caryl Phillips: I suggested that there might be a third way of dealing with this question of how to interpret the national anthem. A way which lies at a point somewhere between the willful distortion and craven devotion. While it is undeniably important that any performer be able to recognize a tradition, out of which the national anthem has emerged, at the same time they must also be free to use their own socio-political vision and weight of cultural experience into the equation.

This is what writers do, when they write back to connect canonical texts in literature. They work carefully, dare I say respectfully, within the tradition of the text and try to make something new. It is a stealthy assault which often startles. Gracefully stitching one’s own traditions onto the fabric of the national and / or culturally dominant cloth and by doing so highlighting one’s previous omission, makes it impossible for anyone to ever look again at the source material in quite the same way. In part, I believe this is what Jeanne Rhys was doing with her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, what Derek Walcott was doing with Omeros and what George Lamming was doing with The Pleasures of Exile. Jane Eyre, the Odyssey, and the Tempest have certainly never again been quite the same for this reader. The self-satisfied heft of the canonical literary tradition excludes people, including women. One can rail against it, to do so one runs the risk of merely reinforcing the authority of that vision. One can glorify it and enhance it, but to do so is to run the risk of losing oneself. Or, one can be artful and work within the tradition and in the end, make something new and often illuminating.

In the African-American tradition, there are few artists that I admire more than Marvin Gaye. Yes, he brilliantly fused his gospel past with his secular tradition, but so did a great many twentieth century African-American artists from Sam Cooke to Aretha Franklin. However, what Gaye had that they didn’t was a deeply felt socio-political consciousness that was nowhere better on display than in his 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On?, an album that deals with the ecology, Vietnam, the taxes, drugs, child abandonment, in fact pretty much everything. Of course, Tamla-Motown did not want Gaye to release his album, fearing it would destroy his career as a cross-over artist. In other words, white people might not like it if he got too heavy. But Marvin Gaye insisted. Despite the huge success of the album by the end of the seventies however he was broke, living in a bread van in Hawaii, separated from his wife and children and heavily dependent upon drugs. Exile follow in Britain, and then in Belgium. But in 1982 he made a return to the United States on the back of a huge hit single, Sexual Healing. Marvin Gaye’s time in Europe had made him think further and more deeply about his relationship with the United States both in terms of family and the history and the politics of his home country. Shockingly, in early 1984, an astute and perceptive, but undeniably tormented, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his own father.

Marvin Gaye publicly sang the national anthem three times. First, in 1968 during the Detroit Tigers baseball game. He was twenty-nine years of age and a Motown star. As such, he was carefully working within the confines of the system. His 1968 version offers us a tight, somewhat unimaginative interpretation – a version that might have in fact been offered up by Perry Como or Bing Crosby. Eleven years later, in 1979, on the eve of his departure for Europe, Marvin Gaye sang the anthem a second time. This time, just before the Larry Holmes – Earnie Shaver’s fight at Ceasar’s Palace, Las Vegas. The performance is looser, partly one suspects because of the drugs, but the restlessness of the structure of the song is now clearly evident. After all, this is the post-What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye and the singer has already broken with the Motown system and firmly placed his socio-political cards on the table.

In 1983, at the NBA All Star basketball game Marvin Gaye, recently returned to the United States of America and with an exile’s understanding of his country, gave his final performance of the national anthem. He’d long ago made it clear that he understood that the country did not fully include him, or even see him. But after time spent in Europe he appeared to be ready to make a statement of some kind. He neither screeched, nor did he serve. He simply put his huge ambivalence with the United States together with Frances Scott Key’s words and he made something new. He found a way to make this difficult, often turgid song work for him. He did not rail against it, nor did he offer us pyrotechnics and tried to blast his way past the song in the diva mode. It is probably the finest piece of performative writing-back that I know of in the American tradition.

Two hundred years after it was first written and sung, Francis Scott Key’s clarion call is, if anything, being increasingly used for raucous chest-beating of the most myopic kind. The damn song is everywhere, all the time. And the more I hear it, the more I miss the coherent inclusive artistry of Marvin Gaye, who’s understated elegance, who’s finely poised ambiguity, served to remind us the great gift of the United States of America to the world, is the gift of reinvention. In fact, artistry such as Marvin Gaye’s can even make one perceive beauty where one before only heard a whine.

O 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;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

[Sample of Marvin Gaye’s 1983 version of the Star-spangled Banner]

Jo Barratt: This podcast is brought to you in the Rupture, Crisis and Transformation Series, offering new perspectives on American Studies. You can listen to more podcasts on this series on the Pod Academy website. This includes the other keynote presentation of the day by Caryl’s colleague Wai Chee Dimock.

The series was produced by Jo Barratt with Lucy Bradley.

Caryl Phillips was born in St.Kitts, West Indies, and brought up in England. He is the author of numerous books of non-fiction and fiction. Dancing in the Dark won the 2006 PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and A Distant Shore won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize. His other awards include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Lannan LiterryAward, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Crossing the River, which was also short-listed for the Booker Prize. He has written extensively for the stage, television, and film, and is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and holds honorary doctorates from a number of universities. He has taught at universities in Singapore, Ghana, Sweden and Barbados and is currently Professor of English at Yale University.

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