Years of timing anthem has me asking why some insist on dragging it out
Updated: Thursday February 26, 2004 10:03PM
Beyonce's Super Bowl rendition checked in at just over two minutes.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
While, snug in their clubroom, They jovially twine The Myrtle of Venus With Bachus' Vine.
Does it mean anything to you, this verse? Well, it's obviously about a clubby set indulging, if you cut through the classical references, in the combined pleasures of fornicating and drinking.
This was the chorus of one of six verses of the club's song, the club being the Anacreon Society, which flourished among young Londoners toward the end of the 18th Century. The melody might be familiar to you if you substitute for the words above, the following:
O Say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave Oer the land of the free, And the home of the brave.
That's right, the song is To Anacreon in Heav'n, a paean to indulgence, and the chaps singing it were just the young Britons who, if the mood seized them, would buy a commission and venture across the seas to command a brigade or a battalion against General Washington's Colonial Army in revolt. And that is the tune that is the basis for our National Anthem. Ironic, huh? Our most cherished song a clubroom ditty for young blades from a nation at war with us.
I think I've mentioned before that I time the national anthem before every football game. And every other sporting event. Actually, I time it every time I hear it. If you ask me why, then you'll be like some other people in the press box who have annoyed me through the years with that question. It's so obvious that I don't feel compelled to give them any answer at all, much less a sensible one.
"Say, why do you do that?"
"I do it because I do it, that's why I do it."
"What are you, nuts or something?" a fellow reporter remarked not too long ago. That's right, "Or something." That sums me up perfectly. I'm an Or Something. Which might explain why not too many people want to sit next to me in the press box. Which is fine with me. But I'm getting carried away.
The tempo of To Anacreon in Heav'n is not geared to the rhythm of marching feet. It's in waltz time, actually 6/4, which is like a speeded-up version of the old one-two-three, one-two-three, 3/4 waltz time. The melody is slightly different from our national anthem, as well. The first three notes, "O-ohh say," instead of being in G-E-C descending order, remain in place at C-C-C, giving it a kind rapid fire launching into the song.
Which adds a kind of rakish charm to the thing. I like this tune better than the way the Star Spangled Banner begins. I searched for the song on the Web and when I finally found the original version, it came on in a kind of hokey, root-a-toot fashion, I put a stopwatch on it, and it timed out in 43.4 seconds. In 50 years of timing the national anthem at sporting events I have never clocked one anywhere near that speed.
But that's the way the song was designed to be sung. It was a ditty, for goodness sake, not the two-minute drill they've turned it into now.
Well, actually I have to take back that claim about never catching one that fast. Remember in the movie, Tora! Tora! Tora! about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when a shipboard ceremony is taking place, and the bombers are approaching and the band members blitz the national anthem so they can get the hell off the deck in a hurry? I clocked that one at 38 seconds, but it gets an asterik, and it also took place at a non-sporting event.
Slow, slow, slooooowwwww national anthems are not correct national anthems. They are personal statements, insults to the song, which, let's face it, is not the greatest thing, musically (Battle Hymn of the Republic, for instance, puts it away), but is all we've got. I make it a point to try to congratulate fast singers of the song, or fast instrumentalists.
How fast can it be sung? Well, my daughter, when she was 12, bet me that she could sing it in under 30 seconds, and I'd still be able to understand all the words. I took the bet, not so much to win but to hear her do it. She came in at 22 seconds, every word clear as a bell. See, it can be done. Try it yourself.
For years, the fastest rendition I regularly clocked was that of the Princeton band. Always around 53 seconds. Then in 1977 I covered a Yankees-Red Sox series at Fenway. The organist was an older man named John Kiley who'd been playing the anthem at Red Sox games for years. The first night he hit the turn ("And the rocket's red glare") in 23 seconds. "Oh my God," I said to myself. "He's on a record pace."
When he reached Heartbreak Hill ("Oh say does that Star Spangled banner yet wave...") he looked like he was going to break five-oh, but the Hill got him, as it does all of them. He staggered in, and held the last note for a couple of counts, but the watch still read 55 seconds. Gosh, if he picked it up at the Hill and got off the last note ... well, I had to talk to him about it.
So I entered the booth, and he was a nice old guy, and when I told him what was possible he said he'd have to think it over. "Some people complain that I do it too fast anyway," he said.
Next night the press box was poised. Everyone who owned a stopwatch had it out. John came through. He took the Hill at a gallop and gunned it at the end, and when he cut off the last note, the readout was 51.0. A big cheer went up among the writers, and I dashed into the organist's booth to congratulate him.
"Mr. Kiley," I said, so choked with emotion I could barely speak. "This is a very big moment for me."
"Well, son," he said, "I must admit I was thinking of you."
No instrumental nor band rendition ever has beaten Kiley's time. Vocals are another matter, because ego figures in here. I'm still waiting for my first sub-one-minute vocal. I guarantee that if someone posted one, it would generate plenty of cheers because the song would gain immeasurable power. I used to love to cover Canadiens games up in Montreal if only to hear Roger Doucet, that legendary little barrel-chested Frenchman with the white hair, belt out O Canada in French. Brought the house down. I mean, people would cry when he finished that song. And it never ran longer than 47 or 48 seconds. Right, I know, different anthem and all that, but the punch is gone when you have to listen to anything too long.
The fastest singer I've ever heard was an operatic chap named Sam Hagen (I think he was a basso but I'm not sure) who turned in a 1:03.4 before a 1977 Rams-Falcons game in Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium. And he hit the turn in 27.5 seconds, which had me dreaming of a sub-one-minute job, but he died on the Hill.
A few years later I was at a Bears game in Soldier Field and I got to the press box around three hours before kickoff. Some woman was rehearsing the national anthem on the field. No, I don't remember her name offhand, and I'm not going to go look it up because this is a depressing story. She was doing 1:05 practice runs without breaking a sweat. I got down to the field in a hurry.
"Look," I told her, "Just pick it up a little at the turn and don't hold any notes at the end and you can break one minute. It would be a record. I've never seen it done." Foolish idiot that I was, I didn't see Bears' owner Mike McCaskey lurking nearby. He heard everything.
"Never mind about any records," he told her. "You sing the national anthem the way it's supposed to be sung." So she came in at 1:05. In the press box I smacked myself in the head so hard that people jumped at the sound.
New York Metropolitan Opera baritone Robert Merrill has been a fixture at Yankee Games in the Stadium for years. He regularly clocked in at 1:10-1:12, nothing exciting either way. It would be exceedingly quick for a rock star, since they drag the song out to ungodly lengths, but about average for an operatic voice, since the serious singers are more concerned with musical correctness than ego. Then I covered a World Series game in 1981 and on opening night he came in at 1:17.8.
I saw him after the game in the press lounge, having a drink.
"Going Hollywood because it's the World Series, huh?" I said in my tactful way.
"Well, you came in almost at 1:18 and you're a regular 1:10-1:12." The guy went bonkers on me.
"Like you really know about singing, right? Like you really know anything about music?" And on and on. I just shrugged, but next night, once again, the guys had their watches out in the press box. He clocked 1:07-flat.
Five minutes later he came into the press box. "What was I?" he asked me. I told him 1:07.
"Awriiiight!" he yelled, pumping his fist in the air.
The longest one I ever clocked was Leola Giles -- 2:34.8 at an Oakland Raiders game. People were groaning. I think some fans passed out while the song was going on. It was an awful, awful thing to listen to.
Once, in a New York Knicks locker room I heard Walt Frazier telling someone about the great national anthem he heard Aretha Franklin sing. He said it lasted four minutes. I immediately jumped into the conversation.
"No national anthem in history ever lasted four minutes,"I told him. "The fans wouldn't let it happen. It would be so weird that they'd hoot it off the stage before it was finished."
"Four minutes, man," he said. "I heard it."
Dr. Z will answer select user questions each week in his NFL mailbag.
"Yeah, but you didn't time it," I said, realizing how ridiculous that sounded, but so did his four-minute thing sound ridiculous, at least to me. Just try dragging it out for four minutes and see what you've got.
The famous Whitney Houston national anthem at the Giants-Bills Super Bowl in Tampa -- the one everybody talked about, because it was so stirring -- clocked out at 1:41.4, a little long for a popular entertainer but nothing exciting. In this last Super Bowl, I got Beyonce Knowles at 2:01.7 That was at the game, live.
But when I shut down my stopwatch, one guy sitting behind me said, "Look, her mouth is still open." Damned if he wasn't right. She was holding the final note. And holding it. And I blew it.
When I got home I prayed that I'd set my tape machine early, to catch the national anthem. I had, thank God. Her real time was 2:09.7, a long, long Super Bowl national anthem. She had held the last note for a full eight seconds. Some people think this kind of stuff is just great. Personally, I can't stand it. Give me that nice 43-second To Anacreon in Heav'n, without all that mooing and hooing and "Oh-oh-0h-oh say-ay-ay-ay?"
But I guess most people don't agree with me, at least the ones who think I'm nuts. "Or something."
Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL for the magazine and SI.com. His Power Rankings, "Inside Football" column and Mailbag appear weekly on SI.com.