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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Lessons in Congregational Singing from Wrigley Field, and other rants


It hasn't been a good baseball year in Second City. Not even for the smarmy southsiders.

But for the kids who play in the Friendly Confines at Ashland and Clark, it's been particularly abysmal. True, last night we beat the highly vaunted Los Angeles Dodgers and their ace Clayton Kershaw, in their own ballpark, but it's hard to get too excited even about that. I only got to one game this year, and hope to get to one more with a choir friend next week, but it's more for the atmosphere than the baseball. The worst day at Wrigley is better than the best day at work.

So, since bragging about the Cubs is just an absurd thought this year, let's talk about singing at the ballpark. Let's put aside the whole thing about the unsingability of the national anthem for just a moment, because what I’d like to say about it applies to any song that’s not “The Star Spangled Banner” which Congress might on some future day dub to be the national anthem. As a matter of fact, it probably applies with even more force. I am so sick of divas and divos taking the national anthem, a song which belongs not to
Some wag's graphic depicting SSB
as performed at sporting events
any singer but to all Americans (and not to “every” American, individually, but to all of us collectively), and turning it into a cascade of guttural pops and fifty-note melismas, and the de rigueur rise of the fourth on the word “free” in the “land of the free” phrase. UGH! Go back to Star Search or America’s Most Wanted Idol, and give me back the National freakin’ Anthem.


Let’s just say that SSB should always be in the key of Ab, except when it’s being played at Vassar or Wellesley, when a special dispensation can be given to sing it in G. The song has the same range as “I Am the Bread of Life,” which we already know can be sung by the Normal Human Person. SSB’s ascent to its apogee is, to a lesser extent perhaps than Toolan’s little masterpiece, a study in vocalization, with the notable and throat-catching exception of the rise of the 10th (what the hell were those ale-soaked British lushes thinking?) between the end of the 2nd quatrain (on the low tonic) and the first note of the 3rd quatrain, on the mediant an octave higher. Cripes. There is no way to get ready for that, but it does make you stand up straighter to try and get the tone. Speaking of standing up straighter, ahem, the original lyrics to "The Anacreontic Song,"called "Anacreon in Heaven," are suggestive of other battles and victories...


The Yellow-Haired God and his nine lusty Maids,
From Helion's banks will incontinent flee,
Idalia will boast but of tenantless Shades,
And the bi-forked hill a mere desert will be.
My Thunder no fear on't,
Shall soon do it's errand,
And damme I'll swing the Ringleaders I warrant,
I'll trim the young dogs, for thus daring to twine,
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."


We ought to be able to raise some kind of a stink about this. I’m no fan of the martial imagery in the SSB, especially in the third stanza with its “manifest destiny” clause, 
Then conquer we must

When our cause it is just,

And this be our motto:

In God is our trust.

Let’s all agree that this quatrain is not a great piece of poetry - the “it” in the second line is redundant and added just for the sake of the meter, which is a Bozo-No-no in writing. No appeals to poetic license accepted, in fact, license revoked, Mr. Key. But the first stanza, with it’s dramatic irony as the smoke and haze lift on the morning after the sea-battle at Fort McHenry, is a masterpiece, with its lingering question all the more dramatic when the song is sung in its usual one-verse fashion:
O say! Does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?


So I don’t want Brittany “Whitney-channeling-Celine” Cowell-Abdul hooting the national anthem at a public event. This is a ritual moment, and it ought to be a moment where we all participate, however terribly, in singing the national anthem. So, all of you all over the country, just stop it. Meanwhile, if the national anthem is a musical free-for-all featuring the star-of-the-moment, then don’t criticize the Roseanne Barrs of the nation for taking it over and doing it themselves. Don’t kid yourself that these singers are singing SSB with four or five times the notes that were written for it out of some exaggerated sense of patriotism - this is for them and for us a moment of sheer narcissism, of letting a professional do something for us that we ought to be doing ourselves, and patting ourselves on the back for it.

And now that I’ve got that off my chest, all you other goofy ballclubs stop with the “God Bless America” debacle in the seventh inning. Stop taking your emo patriotism so seriously and start doing what we still do at Wrigley, in the land of the free and home of the hip, and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Why? Because that’s how it’s done. It’s a baseball game, not a recruitment poster.

The experience of shatteringly good ritual singing, like an assembly of 40,000 being led by an organist and a tone-deaf trio of basketball players from Northwestern, is something to which all church musicians ought to aspire. We can learn a few lessons from this experience, to wit:

  1. If the assembly knows the song, it doesn’t matter how bad the cantor is.

  2. If you don’t change the song all the time, people learn it by heart, and teach it to their kids.

  3. Rhyming can be good

  4. Concrete language is good (e.g., “peanuts and crackerjack,” instead of “snacks and candy”; “Cubbies” instead of “home team” ☺)


I might just be cranky because the Cubs' season reads like a compendium of 20th century French military victories, and whatever game I see next week will be a meaningless study in beer consumption. At least I know three things right now: Wrigley Field will be amazingly beautiful; I’ll sing the Star-Freaking-Spangled Banner no matter what the Idina Menzel wannabe on the 3rd base line is doing, and everyone will be singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch. You can’t ask much more out of life on a workday afternoon in September, unless maybe it’s singing “Go, Cubs, Go” after the 3rd out in the visitors’ ninth, and seeing the blue and white “W” flag yet wave o’er the ramparts of Waveland Avenue.