6 Memorable Musical Variations on The Star-Spangled Banner

hannah sumner

Here at Soundfly, we encourage everyone to work towards finding their own musical voice, and improvise on top of anything. But did you know, in many states you could be fined, or even arrested, for embellishing on the national anthem?

To celebrate the Fourth of July, and America’s tradition of going against the rules, here are six brave pioneers who risked it all (or maybe just a $100 fine), to bring their own musical perspective to bear on the most patriotic of odes.

1. Igor Stravinsky’s Illegal Arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

In Massachusetts, it is illegal to perform the national anthem with “embellishment” or “as dance music, as an exit march or as a part of a medley of any kind.” In 1944, Igor Stravinsky ran afoul of that law, and at a two-show engagement one evening in Boston, performed a “peaceful” and “personal” reharmonized version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The evening was interrupted when Boston police shut down the second performance and seized the sheet music so as to prevent Stravinsky from repeating his offense. (Note: Stravinsky was not in fact arrested, the mug shot below is said to be from a visa application filed years earlier.)

2. Whitney Houston Creates the Version We Know Today

In the lead up to this year’s Super Bowl, PopBitch analyzed trends in the most memorable pop star performances of the National Anthem, pinpointing the moment that the ornamental, vocal gymnastic version we know today really took hold.

What they found was decades worth of singers trying to match and out-do Whitney Houston’s classic 1991 performance.

Whitney’s contribution to the anthem? Turning one note words into three-note runs. The first time we see it is in the word “hailed” — “instead of singing that first note and holding it, as per the original melody (a G here), Whitney replaces it with a three-note run-down. She starts on the G, and then works her way down to land on a note that is a third below (in this case, an E♭) and holds that one instead. A simple, but pleasant, flourish.” The full analysis is well worth a read, if for nothing else than seeing the crazy jumble that is the annotated version of Christina Aguillera’s 2011 performance… which would not have flown in Massachusetts!

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Want to make people weep from your music like Whitney Houston? Learn to utilize the potential of harmony and produce more compelling music with Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords.

3. All Four Verses

Did you know that the version of the national anthem we know today is but ONE of a four verse song? Neither did these unsuspecting baseball fans, who found themselves by turns, befuddled, amused, and ultimately pretty anxious for the end of this little-heard, four-verse rendition.

4. Jimi Hendrix Performs at Woodstock 69

In his two-hour closing set at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, Jimi Hendrix took a solo in the middle of a medley and performed one of the most iconic version of the national anthem ever recorded. To this date, argument continues as to his intention behind performing the piece, with historians calling it everything from “‘the most important political rock statement of the 1960s,’ to ‘an afterthought caught in one of Hendrix’s worst performances.’”

But not as well known is the fact that this was far from the first time he had performed the song live. There are over 50 live recordings of his playing the song, 28 of them before the ’69 Woodstock performance.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Aesthetics–The Forgotten Frontier in the Tone Debate”

5. Glen Gould’s “God Save the Star-Spangled Banner”

While recording his famous “Bach’s Goldberg Variations”, Glen Gould took a moment to explore an example of a “quodlibet”, combining two or more melodies with the same harmonic structure. Here, he blends “God Save the Queen” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” so seamlessly, you float from one to the other without even noticing the transition.

6. R. Kelly Performs a Soul Version

No real trivia here, but at a Vegas boxing match in 2005, R. Kelly performed a soul arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Surrounded by Chicago-style stepping dancers, and interspersed with calls to the audience to “clap your hands, y’all!”, R. Kelly belted out a version that had many up in arms. Billboard named it one of “the worst national anthem performances ever.” But for my money, it is simply one of the goofiest, most ridiculous renditions I’ve ever seen.

Watch on and enjoy the 4th!

Learn how to orchestrate for a string ensemble, develop your foundational skills in composition, and dive deeper into the subtle craft of songwriting, and do it all with the help of a one-on-one mentor, in our Write category of courses!

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