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Live performances also provide the chance to make musical history. Singer Jose Feliciano ensured his place in the anthem hall of fame after his bluesy Latin interpretation at the 1968 World Series in Detroit, ending the song with "Oh, yeah." RCA Records pressed a single of it the next day. After that, performers strained to put their personal stamp on the anthem: Lou Rawls (languorous jazz), Aretha Franklin (Motown), Al Hirt (Dixieland) and Frank Sinatra (moody lounge lizard). The prize for the most ear-bending version goes to Jimi Hendrix's screeching finale at Woodstock.
Molto allegro is the desired pace for most performances, to cut down on fan fidgeting and player awkwardness, especially if the game is televised. In 1977 Fenway Park organist John Kiley became an anthem legend for coming in at a snappy 51 seconds. That is still not fast enough for ABC Sports. "The goal," says former producer Dorrance Smith, "is to cut away to a commercial." Luckily, he was not broadcasting the 1978 World Series in Yankee Stadium when Pearl Bailey dragged out the song to a record-breaking 2:28.
Like democracy, the Banner looks best when compared with its alternatives. "Amber waves of grain" may be more peaceable than "bombs bursting in air," but America, the Beautiful lacks drama. My Country 'Tis of Thee was stolen, note for note, from the British national anthem, God Save the Queen. And God Bless America has obvious problems with the separation of church and state, but it has de facto status as the anthem of the Philadelphia Flyers, who won the Stanley Cup in 1974 after Kate Smith inspired them with the ode to the land that she loved. Still trotted out for big games courtesy of videotape, the late Kate has compiled an enviable lifetime (and thereafter) record with the Flyers of 58 wins, 12 losses, 3 ties.
If winning were everything, God Bless America might carry the day. Anyone can belt out a respectable version. America, the Beautiful is not much challenge either. But Americans have been gamely trying to master The Star- Spangled Banner without quite overcoming it for 175 years. In a world that changes every day, that's worth more than lovable lyrics and a manageable melody.