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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei, 5762

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Out-of-shape vocalists try patriotic song -- IN a nation generally averse to group activities, in a country that has been eliminating and cutting back on school music programs for 20 years, in a world where most people can't carry a tune in a bucket .. . is it a big surprise people are not doing such a hot job when faced with the challenge of group singing?

In the current wave of patriotic fervor, this is sadly apparent. People want to stand up and sing "America the Beautiful." People want to be able to belt out "G-d Bless America." People are even willing to wrestle down the national anthem. But the results are sadly mixed.

The song of the moment for us seems to be "God Bless America" written by Irving Berlin in 1919. A good choice. Particularly when you consider the alternatives.

As anyone who regularly attends baseball games will attest, our official national anthem is laced with snares and landmines for the unwary vocalist. Just when the song is supposed to be its strongest -- "and the rockets red gl-a-a-a-re" -- half the crowd prudently bows out, ceding the song to the showoffs. People with sensitive natures wince, bracing themselves for whichever notes might come next. The song is stirring when a brass band or Jimi Hendrix plays it, but it's just not group-singing material.

A democratic nation demands alternatives that are within the abilities of a vocal majority.

"America the Beautiful" often is employed. This is cool when Ray Charles does it, but in a group, it's kind of a downer. Its slow tempo confuses people in arenas or ballparks where the echo and the public address system throws off everyone's timing. Worse, it has more verses than "American Pie." This means nobody is ever certain when it's going to end.

Even an audience of public-singing troopers will go strong on the first verse, a little weaker on second verse and ragged on the third. The fourth verse will be song by two competing retired church-choir soloists who will face off until one of them runs out of words and the other one will declare victory.

By contrast, "G-d Bless America" has a single verse. One.

Berlin, trooper that he was, knew that you gotta leave them wanting more.

It's upbeat. Usually it's played in a key most people can sing. And it doesn't take a diva's range. If you can sing "Louie, Louie," you probably have the chops to take on "G-d Bless America." So stand up and sing with everyone else. No excuses.

The only speed bump is "through the night with a light from above." It's a bit too staccato to sing with a Southern accent and it's the point where a lot of people's memories begin to give out.

Usually, the work-around is to mumble the line while listening for clues from the folks around you. Then, you sing the next line -- "From the mountains to the prairies" -- with twice as much gusto, by way of compensation. It's a satisfying build up to "To the oceans white with foam."

Unfortunately, the "white with foam" part is another drop-off point in public participation. Here, the mumbling breaks out again and a lot people sing something that sounds like "to the open microphone." This is incorrect. But before anyone can feel bad, the song reaches its stirring conclusion, stragglers catch up and everyone ends on the same note.

A satisfying conclusion.

And since there's no second, third or ninth verse, there are no embarrassing pauses and false starts while everyone guesses at how far they are being asked to wade into the song.

If it had accompanying arm gestures like "YMCA," it would be the perfect crowd song. But it's darn near close.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

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© 2001, M. R. Lane