WASHINGTON – When the U.S. Naval Academy Band strikes up “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Navy games, every uniformed spectator shows respect for the Maryland-born anthem with a dutiful salute.
“You would never see someone not doing that,” said Dan Drew, a trombonist and the band’s operations coordinator. “It’d be like someone smoking in an office these days.”
It’s been 75 years since an act of Congress made Francis Scott Key’s poem the official national anthem on March 3, 1931. The anthem holds special meaning for Marylanders and military members alike, since the poem depicts the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore on Sept. 13-14, 1814. And while the level has changed over the years, bandleaders and others say the anthem is still regarded with respect, especially in a post-Sept. 11 world where U.S. soldiers fight overseas.
Even so, Orioles baseball fans have added their own local, sometimes controversial, twist on the lyrics, while others say many Americans suffer from anthem ignorance.
A Harris poll showed that 61 percent of Americans do not know the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” said John Mahlmann, executive director of the National Association for Music Education.
“We knew that anyway,” he said. “When you look at sporting events or the Olympics, it’s obvious people don’t know the words to it.”
His organization advocates the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in school music programs through its National Anthem Project. The public outcry against Roseanne Barr’s spitting-and-crotch-scratching rendition in 1990 proved the nation’s respect for the anthem, he said, but education and performance is lacking.
“I think (the anthem)’s gone downhill, and needs to be taught more in schools,” he said. “We don’t watch someone say the Pledge of Allegiance — we all participate.”
Mahlmann hopes the National Anthem Project will be “particularly impressive” when its road show hits Baltimore around September.
Today, most people associate “The Star-Spangled Banner” with local sports events. Terrapin fans along the University of Maryland, College Park Comcast Center’s student wall are always respectful and hold the anthem in high regard until its completion, said L. Richmond Sparks, band director of the university’s Mighty Sound of Maryland.
But the homage to the Baltimore Orioles inserted by some fans irks Sparks. It takes the form of an abrupt, shouted chorus of “O!” — not at all on key — from some students during the “Oh, say does that?” phrase.
“I think it’s out of place,” Sparks said, noting he has addressed the student body about it before. “The band hates it too. We notice it so much when we go to tournaments away. We’re sitting there in Greensboro (N.C.) and there are some quackers in the stands going ‘O!.'”
The Baltimore Orioles do not promote the anthem “O!” cheer, said Spiro Alafassos, executive director of communications for the team.
“You could see it a lot of ways,” he said. “Obviously we don’t encourage it, but at the same time it’s their right. Part of the song’s meaning is the right for us to express ourselves.”
Alafassos said he watches people’s reactions to the anthem from his office, which overlooks the promenade running the length of the Camden Yards outfield. Most people who are eating or waiting in lines stop what they’re doing, he said. Those who do not observe the anthem are more oblivious than disrespectful, he said.
The Orioles receive 300 to 500 audition tapes per year to sing the anthem live before games. As the birth city of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Baltimore franchise keeps strict observation over the song’s deliverance, Alafassos said.
“We ask for as-straight-as-possible interpretations,” he said.
The Navy’s band, made up of professional musicians, plays at athletic events, military ceremonies and honors for the president of the United States or the secretary of state.
“We have done it so many times that there really isn’t a lot of discussion about it,” Drew said.
The band is, however, restricted to certain musical arrangements and military guidelines on how the anthem should be played. Rules also dictate instrumentation, so requests for a simple jazz quartet will not fly, Drew said.
“The band has to be a certain size that gives the music its full respect,” he said.
Respect was an issue for the Terrapin band leader Sparks decades ago. A male guest singer at a basketball game emphasized the lyric “still there” in the anthem during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, he said.
The “still there” emphasis was mimicked by student fans for years, much to the chagrin of Sparks.
“I’d grab a kid and say, ‘Do you know what that means?'” he recounted.
“Uh, no,” would be the common reply, to which Sparks explained how the tradition was based on a crisis in which 66 Americans were held hostage in Iran for 444 days.
“Oh, man, that’s not cool,” students would say after the revelation.
But the university’s performance brought pride at the 2002 NCAA national basketball championship, when the university marching band played the national anthem in front of police and firemen holding the World Trade Center flag from Sept. 11, 2001. The flag bearers told Sparks it was the most moving rendition they had heard in all their travels with the flag.
At practice, the Mighty Sound of Maryland takes special care in the anthem’s sustained phrases, or “sostenuto,” and broad deliverance at the end, Sparks said.
“Certainly there’s a certain majesty in presenting the national anthem,” he said. “Unfortunately, in many athletic venues many colleges will try to get through that in a hurry. That’s not the case here.”