Space & Innovation

What Makes the Star Spangled Banner So Stirring?

One reason is that singing the anthem is one of the few times when people do something collectively.

Love it or hate it, America's National Anthem stirs our emotions. Some feel moved by the Francis Scott Key's message of sacrifice and the survival of Fort McHenry under bombardment from British forces in 1814. Others wince, saying it's just too militaristic, or hard for most of us to sing -- the high and low notes too far apart.

Still, the "Star-Spangled Banner" will get its most public display this weekend right before the Super Bowl as Lady Gaga gives her rendition. Will the pop diva keep it uptempo, moving along in its original ¾ time signature, or keep it slow and draw attention to her own vocal acrobatics?

Anthem expert David Hildebrand, director of the Colonial Music Institute in Severna Park, Md., has sung the song thousands of times in public. He foresees a spectacle this weekend.

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"I think a lot of people are insulted when the National Anthem becomes a vehicle for a star to draw attention to themselves," Hildebrand said. "Let the words speak for themselves."

Hildebrand said the "Star-Spangled Banner" brings a lump to our throats because it reminds us of the sacrifice of the people who have defended our country. Republican or Democrat, we're all patriots when we listen silently or sing along.

Key originally wrote four verses of the song, which was set to the melody an English gentlemens' drinking song of the time. But today, we only sing the first verse, which ends up posing a question that is answered later.

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"The whole message of the song is redemption," Hildebrand said. "The nation's capital had just been burned by the British, we were making our last stand against an attack. The song is a song of redemption of ‘Oh my gosh, we've been attacked by most powerful army in the world and we've survived.' That's the tradition in my mind."

As to its melody, Hildebrand said the key to successfully singing the anthem is choosing the right key to begin.

"The song itself is not that hard to sing if you know how to sing," he said. "It's important to chose a pitch level that is appropriate to your own voice."

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The anthem also moves us because it's one of the few times when people do something collectively, in this case singing or listening, according to Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology and American culture at the University of Michigan.

"It unifies us in a collective ritual and reinforces the idea that we are all in this together," Clague said. "The moments like that in our life are pretty rare."

Clague pointed to Whitney Houston's 1991 rendition as a high point in Super Bowl anthems. Even though her vocals were pre-recorded, Houston gave the anthem its rightful musical heft without overdoing it. He admits that performers need to practice and get it right before going on stage.

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"The distance between high and low is greater than any other on the planet," Clague said. "It makes it more athletic, demanding and commanding. You have the drama of the melody, particularly to rockets' red glare and gives a sense of triumph and challenge to commit to making the melody sing. I do think the musical drama of the piece is very effective."

As to changing the anthem to a more vocal-friendly tune such as "This Land is Your Land," which Woody Guthrie wrote as a protest song, or the rousing "America, The Beautiful," both Clague and Hildebrand say no.

"People say we should get a new anthem," Clague said. "But there's nothing like (The Star-Spangled Banner) when it all comes together."

Idina Menzel performs the National Anthem before Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1, 2015 in Glendale, Az.

Americans celebrated the first July Fourth in 1777, a year after declaring independence from England. The festivities have varied in the years since then, but several mainstays have emerged (parades and fireworks) while other patriotic pastimes (drunken toasts made by menfolk) have gone out of style. Here's a list of American traditions and famous Fourths.

Philadelphia held one of the largest Independence Day festivities for the country's first Fourth. The Continental Congress feasted at an official dinner, gave toasts and arranged a 13-gun salute. Americans also celebrated with speeches, parades and fireworks, said Adam Criblez, an assistant professor of history at Southeast Missouri State University, and author of the book "Parading Patriotism: Independence Day Celebrations in the Urban Midwest, 1826-1876" (Northern Illinois University Press, 2013). "1777 in Philadelphia kind of sets the tone for July Fourth for the next 80 or 90 years," Criblez told Live Science. [

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Even the

Revolutionary War troops

celebrated the big day. On July 4, 1778, George Washington gave his troops a double ration of rum and ordered a cannon salute to mark the occasion, Criblez said. But the young nation was still figuring out how to commemorate its birthday, and most celebrations were held in New England, where the war sentiment was the strongest, he said. Still, celebratory practices spread. From the 1770s to the 1860s, most towns began the day with an artillery fire at dawn, if they had cannons on hand, Criblez said. "If they didn't have cannons in the town, some of the men would get up and shoot their muskets into the air," he said. "That was kind of a 'Welcome to Independence Day'

." Then, people would launch small but

noisy fireworks

, and parade from a public green or park to a courthouse or church, Criblez said. There, a lawyer, preacher or politician would talk for about an hour praising the country and its citizens. At lunchtime, women would return home to make supper, and "the men would go off to the bar and spend hours drinking in the afternoon," Criblez said. A designated toastmaster would give 13 toasts, with the first always going to the United States, and the second to George Washington. Depending on the political affiliation, the toastmaster might toast different politicians or policies. Finally, the last toast went to the ladies, and impromptu toasts from other men would follow, Criblez said.

Three presidents have died on the Fourth of July, and one died after having contaminated food or drink during Independence Day celebrations. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the country's 50th anniversary. Just five years later, James Monroe, the fifth president (1817-1825) and a founding father, died on July 4, 1831. [

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] Zachary Taylor, the nation's 12th president, died on July 9, 1850. That July Fourth had been blistering hot, and sources said the president had eaten a bunch of cherries and drunk iced milk and several glasses of water. He became ill and died days later. It's unclear how Taylor became sick, but the cherries, milk or water may have carried harmful bacteria, perhaps cholera, historians say.

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"Whoever won had local bragging rights for another year," Criblez said.Baseball also gained popularity during and after the war. Regional leagues formed, and towns held Independence Day baseball tournaments.Fourth of July celebrations changed during the American Civil War (1861-1865). In light of the dead and wounded soldiers, many Northerners stopped the dawn artillery salute and turned away from large, public parades. Instead, these celebrants

picnicked with their friends and family

. These picnics were often fundraisers, where organizers might charge an entrance fee of a quarter and donate the money to the troops, Criblez said.

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Before the Civil War, people who kept their businesses open on Independence Day were seen as unpatriotic. But that changed after the war. Stores and restaurants opened their doors and held sales in the name of patriotism. It made sense if a store was selling red, white and blue decorations, but even clothing and furniture stores pushed the idea, calling shoppers


for buying merchandise. Of course, the Fourth of July sale is still present, as are picnics, fireworks and, to some extent, playing sports such as baseball. "By the 1870s, you have what I would consider a pretty modern Fourth of July," Criblez said.

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In the early 1900s, the reform-minded Progressive movement aimed to improve American morality. "One big target was the Fourth of July," Criblez said. "What reformers said is that people were getting too drunk and they were being dangerous by shooting off fireworks." Organizers, such as local activists, doctors, police and firefighters, started the Safe and Sane Movement. In Cleveland, the movement prompted the city council to ban fireworks in 1908, and other cities followed suit in the following years, according to researchers at

Case Western Reserve University


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Boxing champion Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold the world heavyweight boxing title, made history when he kept his title on July 4, 1910. [

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] "He was a pre-Mohammed Ali type of personality," Criblez said. "He wore fur coats. He liked to date white women, and he was outspoken. Basically, the boxing establishment didn't want him to be the champion anymore, and they began this search for someone who could take the belt from him." The fight provided excellent entertainment for July Fourth celebrators. Jim Jeffries, dubbed "The Great White Hope," took up the challenge, but lost spectacularly to Johnson. Original article on

Live Science


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