Our National Anthem: A song for all seasons

"The Star-Spangled Banner," has been the United States National Anthem since a Congressional resolution made it so on March 3, 1931. (Graphic by Ken Chandler)

"The Star-Spangled Banner," has been the United States National Anthem since a Congressional resolution made it so on March 3, 1931. (Graphic by Ken Chandler)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO - LACKLAND, Texas -- According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the three most frequently sung songs are, in order: "Happy Birthday To You," "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and "Auld Lang Syne."

A fourth tune, which reached an historic milestone recently, is sung repeatedly in stadiums and arenas across the United States as a prelude to games in the four major team sports which overlap annually in October.

Our revered National Anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," turned 200-years-old and as it has for decades is being performed at post-season baseball games plus regular season football, basketball and hockey games during that month.

Each rendition is unique to the performer doing the honors. Our anthem has been sung by vocalists from a wide spectrum of musical genres. Regardless of each singer's treatment, the lyrics are constant.

The iconic words, penned by Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet, after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Md., by British ships in Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812, have stood the test of time, and musical treatments.

The words became well known to the melody of a popular English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." It was first recognized for official use by the United States Navy in 1889 and then by the White House in 1916. The song has been our anthem since a Congressional resolution made it so on March 3, 1931.

Key wrote four verses, although only the first is commonly sung these days which has proven to be more than enough to stir patriotism in Americans attending sporting events. And that's my point.

It does not matter how the words are sung. They're strong enough to withstand even the most lackluster vocal performance.

I remember the ballyhoo resulting from comedic actress Rosanne Barr performing the anthem before a July 25, 1990 Major League Baseball game at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium.

Barr said she was having trouble hearing herself over the public-address system, so she sang as loud as possible, which caused the song to sound "screechy." Afterward she mimicked the often-seen actions of players by spitting, etc. Barr claimed she was encouraged by baseball officials to "bring humor to the song." The version received heavy media attention and offended many, including President George H. W. Bush, who called it "disgraceful."

Obviously the song persevered and now flourishes thanks to many artists who marry the powerful words with their own vocal flair. One, in particular, who has literally brought tears to my eyes, is the long-time National Anthem singer for my hometown Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League, Jim Cornelison.

An accomplished opera singer by trade, Cornelison is in his seventh full season as the 'Hawks anthem singer, and for good reason. He uses his robust tenor voice to emphasize words in the anthem that evoke spontaneous emotion in the standing-room-only United Center crowds unlike anything in professional sports. From Cornelison's opening note to his signature upward lilt of "...and the home OF THE BRAVE," it's a tradition for crowds to accompany him with a continuous thundering ovation.  

I'm not alone in my affinity for his performance. Television sportscasters covering Blackhawks home games always remark how emotionally charged they, themselves, feel following Cornelison's stirring rendition.

On a personal note I, like many Americans, have heard the "Star-Spangled Banner" so many times I've committed the words to memory. That came in handy many years ago when I was the emcee of a body-building competition at the Bob Hope Performing Arts Theater here.

Prior to the competition, a pre-recorded version of the National Anthem was supposed to have played. Technical difficulties prevented that from happening so with hundreds in the audience waiting in silent anticipation, I started singing the anthem acappella. After the first few words, the audience joined in.

Thanks to the words lasting impression on me, I felt a sense of duty to sing them then and feel a sense of pride today whenever I hear them before watching a sporting event.