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Sense and Nonsense: O say can you sing when the weather outside is frightful?

January 28, 2013

By Lynda Hollenbeck, senior editor of The Saline Courier

Did she or didn't she? That is the question.
And, of course, I'm making reference to Beyonce's performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the inauguration of President Obama.
A huge controversy has erupted since it was revealed — perhaps that's too strong a word, so I'll rephrase — since it was implied that the singer was lip-syncing in her performance on Inauguration Day.
Some have come to her defense with the arguments that the weather was cold and it's difficult to sing well in an outdoor setting in the first place.
All true, but other selected singers of the day — namely Kelly Clarkson and James Taylor — shared their vocals au natural. That's the way it should be.
It's an honor beyond any I could imagine to be asked to sing our nation's anthem for an occasion as significant as the inauguration of a president. In my opinion — which matters not at all in the grand scheme of things — it deserved the respect of a genuine performance. Just my way of thinking.
In another vein, I of all people realize that recordings can be lifesavers at critical times. As a singer since about age 3, I've had lots of challenges.
The only time I've not delivered an actual performance when I had agreed to do so was during my husband's funeral service. He had wanted me to sing for that occasion, and I had told him I would. I wasn't in the habit of breaking promises to him, but as we got closer to the event, I realized I couldn't keep my emotions in check.
It turned into a situation in which the spirit was willing, but the voice was not. I turned to master sound technician/friend Berry Beard, who played a recorded performance of a hymn medley I had done at a church event.
But I didn't stand in the pulpit and move my lips. It was listed on the service bulletin as "previously recorded."
Honesty is still a virtue in my book.
The national anthem has been at the center of performance controversies for other big names. Christina Aguilera's rendition at a Super Bowl included a slip of the tongue and ended up in a wrong word, but that's not unusual, particularly for this number. She had my immediate sympathy.
Unless you've done it yourself, you don't have any idea how much pressure is put upon a person who stands up to sing at a public event, especially when the person is singing something everyone claims to know.
Although just for the record, I'd bet that more than half the population couldn't recite the words to the whole thing, but then they haven't been asked to warble it for millions of folks.
The anthem is a difficult piece musically and it includes words we don't commonly use. And when Aguilera says she got caught up in the moment and lost her place, I understand.
What singer hasn't had that experience?
My favorite performer in the whole world — the late Robert Goulet — had to live down a national anthem blooper. Instead of singing "the dawn's early light," his lips formed "the dawn's early night," which makes no sense, but singers everywhere understand that it happens.
It was in 1965 when singer Bob performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine.
To the crooner's eternal regret, he failed to heed the advice of the late Nat King Cole, who once said, "If you do nothing else in your life, don't ever sing the national anthem at a ball game."
"You've got 'night,' 'light,' 'twilight,' 'bright' and 'fight,' and you've got to make them all go in the proper direction," Goulet said later when talking about that mix-up.
He gave hundreds of flawless renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" after that night in Lewiston, but he said nobody ever asked him about those times. He blamed the attention on the fight, which turned out to be a bust when Ali knocked out Liston in the first round.
"I walked into that town and I was a hero. Then the fight lasted a minute and half, and I walked out of town a bum," he said.
Personally, I wish people would return to the traditional style for our nation's signature piece. Far too many decide to give if their own flavor, and — again my humble opinion — it diminishes rather than enhances the piece.
At one public event, where someone was singing an absolutely unrecognizable interpretation, friend Freddy Burton whispered to me, "Francis Scott Key is flipping over in his grave right now."
A lot of people didn't know it at the time, but a decade or so ago, Whitney Houston resorted to lip-syncing when she performed the anthem, with the Florida Orchestra, before Super Bowl XXV in Tampa Stadium.
At the game the musicians were playing and Whitney was singing, but there were no live microphones. It was a combination of lip-syncing and finger-syncing.
The charade wasn't revealed till much later.
I've shared this before, but since it's one of my favorite family stories, I'm doing it again here. My absolutely favorite performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" was recorded on a tiny cassette player a number of years ago as my late spouse was driving granddaughter Abbey home from Jolly Time Preschool.
The children had been taught the anthem at school and she was showing off for her Poppy, who had his tape recorder handy.
For her big finish, little Abbey sang: " ... and the home in the heart of the brave."
That's the way she heard it, and by golly, that's the way it was. With the kind of determination that comes only from a 4-year-old, she convinced us that hers was the right rendition.
Ed and I often sang it that way.
When I was going through some of Ed's things not long after his death, I came across that tiny cassette of Abbey's song. I'd rather hear it than anything Beyonce or even Robert Goulet could sing.
But grandmothers are like that.

Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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