Friday, November 29, 2013

Did Whitney Houston do right or do wrong when she redid the National Anthem back in 1991?

Whitney Houston seriously rearranged the Nation Anthem for a football game in '91. Many loved
what she did. Others said things like this:

"Maybe the composers would be miffed that the simple harmonic structure was changed to please a certain group of people."

The composer of the music was John Stafford Smith, words by Ralph Tomlinson, as a posh drinking song for an English gentlemen's club:

--as Sung at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand
--the Words by RALPH TOMLINSON ESQ R, late President of that SOCIETY

To ANACREON in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron wou'd be;
When this Answer arriv'd from the JOLLY OLD GRECIAN
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
"No longer be mute,
"I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
"And, besides, I'll instruct you like me, to intwine
"The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS's Vine.

More verses follow in similar vein.

You can hear it here:

So first we must ask what Mssrs. Smith and Tomlinson would have thought about some tax-dodging enemies of their nation transmogrifying their club's jolly drinking song into a revolutionary anthem.

After that jolt I can't imagine Whitney Houston's morphs adding much injury (from their POV) to what Francis Scott Keys did during the War of 1812.

My personal all-time favorite composer, J.S. Bach, reharmonized many a hymn in his day. Would Hans Leo Hassler have objected to Bach's redo of his beautiful Easter hymn "o haupt voll blut und wunden" from this:

to this?

Hassler's original is lovely. Bach's makes me weep (and I'm not even a Christian).

Note that he rerythm'd that along with changing the harmony, as Whitney did with our anthem.

There is no bright, clear line between "composer" and "interpreter." For me what matters isn't what's different but what moves me. Most National Anthem re-dos make me wince, to be honest. If you're going to mess with a nation's anthem you'd better know what you're doing. But in this case I think Whitney did.

As you can see from the innumerable comments by listeners who said and say how meaningful Whitney's version was--including families of our military who were serving in the Gulf at that time.

Whereas all the miserable perversions of both the anthem and Whitney's revision mostly get comments that put in words what would appear on my old German shepherd's face when I'd try to play the harmonica and he'd desperately paw at the instrument trying to get me to stop. 
And for those who'd like to hear our national anthem done in a way Francis Scott Keys would be more likely to recognize, we now have the Jackie Evancho acapella rendition from Thanksgiving Day, November 11, 2013:
(it had to be distorted some to avoid the NFL's lawyers, who had YouTube suppress the original, for unfathomable reasons)

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