Just before Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston fought for the heavyweight boxing crown in 1965, baritone Robert Goulet lost his preliminary bout with The Star- Spangled Banner. He made it flawlessly through the first several lines before losing his grip on the lyrics. He later blamed his Canadian upbringing for having to hum the remainder before thousands of fight fans and a closed- circuit television audience.
Though it is blared, crooned, strummed, tooted and mumbled thousands of times a year, The Star-Spangled Banner is a song almost no one gets exactly right. A few musicians, historians and public officials would like to replace it. Indiana Congressman Andrew Jacobs has reintroduced a bill that would change the national anthem to the more easily warbled America, the Beautiful.
Critics deride the Banner's lyrics, written by Francis Scott Key after the British assault on Baltimore in 1814, as difficult to memorize, warmongering, and insulting to America's staunchest ally. They also claim that the music is derived from a drinking song popularized at London's Crown and Anchor Tavern. The tune's highs and lows are, well, too high and low. Bass-baritone George London contends the Banner is "impossible to sing if you're sober." Opera singers have the best chance to cover the octave plus a fifth. But the soprano who starts a half-note too high will shatter glass and her hopes of auditioning for the Met by the time she gets to the "land of the free." She can forget getting deep enough for the "twilight's last gleaming."
Not many Americans agree with the critics: 53% of those polled by TIME/CNN last week feel the anthem is easy to sing; only 28% think it should be replaced by America, the Beautiful; 64% claim to know all the words.
The anthem runs deep in American life, a fixture wherever fireworks explode or a ball is tossed. Although Congress did not make the Banner the nation's official anthem until 1931, the military began playing it at ceremonies as far back as 1898. It made its major league baseball debut in Chicago during the 1918 World Series, when the band struck it up for no apparent reason and Babe Ruth and the crowd stood at attention. Now it is played before everything from Pee Wee hockey to the Super Bowl.
To put audiences out of their pregame misery many stadiums resort to canned versions of error-free performances by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Robert Merrill (called the "Star-Spangled Baritone" for his ubiquity on the anthem- singing circuit) and the Johnny Mann Singers. But a taped version takes away the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat inherent in every live performance, as well as the singers' inalienable right to get it wrong. Country-and-western star Johnny Paycheck, crooning before Atlanta Falcons fans, faked his way through several lines: "Oh, say can you see, it's cloudy at night/ What so loudly we sang as the daylight's last cleaning." An immigrant Hungarian opera singer performing at a benefit showed Yankee ingenuity when he drew on the cliches of his adopted land, belting out, "Bombs bursting in air, George Washington was there." A former Miss Bloomington, Minn., blew her chance to break into the big time when she sang the anthem before a Minnesota Twins game. By the time she got to the "land of the free," she was in the land of the hopelessly confused. "Aw, nuts," she muttered into the microphone, and gave up.