Why I Still Sing the Anthem - Mike Craghead
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Why I Still Sing the Anthem - Mike Craghead

Sometimes Mike fools the folks at the Arcata Ball Park to let him sing the National Anthem before the Crabs' inevitable win. In 2024 he fooled them into the following dates:

  • Sunday, June 16 (Father's Day)
  • Sunday, June 30
  • Sunday, July 14.

Above: it sounds kind of like this when Mike sings before baseball games.

Below: it sounds kind of like this when Mike talks about singing before baseball games.




Why I Still Sing the Anthem

Ideal Ideas

America looked great on paper at the start. Of course it's widely understood that by most modern standards that our founding fathers were terrible creeps, but they did get some good work done: they managed to come together to try to design a society immune to the tyranny they witnessed in England, where monarchy and theocracy had driven them out. They fussed and fought in their groovy white wigs and eventually cobbled together a system with baked-in checks and balances, mechanisms to change rules, and a number of other very nice sentiments.

If you're being intellectually honest you'll see that throughout our nation's (brief) history, many of the rules and rights and benefits that look so great on paper ended up applying only to subsets of the population, or to different people at different times, or to no one at all.

Because of that, for some folks the Star-Spangled Banner stings like a slap in the face, because it's written about the ideal of a country that only works as promised for a select few. And if you can't (or won't) see that, protests during the anthem are going to bother you a whole lot.

Built for Change

Healthy patriotism isn’t blind acceptance; it’s respect for the ideal that looks so great on paper, and willingness to use the built-in constitutional tools to change the rules as needed, to better serve the population. Thomas Jefferson:

"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."
-Excerpted from a letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816.

Blind nationalism is the opposite of patriotism; it's accepting whatever your side believes without looking at those beliefs critically, most often at the expense of the "on-paper" ideals of the country itself. To paraphrase TJ, it’s insisting that as grownups we should all wear the same coats we wore when we were ten. Sometimes it’s important to fight against that notion, and at those times, protests during the anthem can be just as-and sometimes more-patriotic than singing along. 

Symbols Work

That said, there remains something profound and real underneath it all. It's the promise, the idealism, the goal we should all be striving for, the stuff in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address and damn near everything Dr. Martin Luther King ever said into a microphone: liberty and justice for all, and whatnot.

Of course the flag itself can and has been co-opted by nefarious twits; flags have always been. Of course this song is the most militaristic anthem of any nation on earth, with an always-omitted third verse that makes folks rightfully squeamish. Of course there are plenty of reasons to give up on the ideal, to mourn its loss and label it unfixable. But here's the thing: lots of folks do live here. And as one of those folks, I feel a responsibility to improve the systems which affect the lives and livelihoods of the other folks who live here, whether or not I know them or like them. That notion is baked into the lyrics, just as it’s baked into the noble scribbles at the foot of the Statue of Liberty and the Constitution.

So toward that end, what levers can we pull to we have in a country as divided as ours? We’re going to have to come together eventually to fix things, aren't we? Some day the fog's gotta lift, right? And there will once again be a time when democracy fires back up and opposing factions once again learn to work together, to debate and compromise, for the betterment of the greatest number of people? Right?

What we need is a frickin miracle. But because we can't count on that, I'm counting on something more tangible: music.

A Frickin’ Miracle

For those who are open to it, the Star-Spangled Banner almost immediately conjures a calm reverence that many folks never reach through any other means. We collectively shut the hell up and sing together, and that is an undeniably human, primal experience. This song sung well can bring tears to the eyes of the grumpiest jerk, or make hardcore fans of rival teams who just might come to blows right after the game, share a profound moment just before it.

There's hope in that moment; you can feel it. The fog lifts.

If and when we're ever going to get our collective shit together, it will partly be because of the feeling many of us get when we hear the anthem sung well: it's visceral; foolish, idealistic, but real. If you're moved or stirred or inspired during the anthem, there's a good chance that your uncle is feeling something similar to what you’re feeling, even if you're on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Maybe the anthem, warts and all, is the common ground we need.

Behind the Mic

As a singer there are lots of built-in risks and rewards to singing the anthem: it’s a challenge, especially at a ballpark, to include nuance in the face of crazy-long reverb and stage fright. It feels like a real accomplishment when you do it, and sometimes you end up with a free beer. But whether or not you like or even pay attention to the lyrics, it plays the role that an anthem needs to play, and happens to be constructed for maximum dramatic payoff (which cannot be said of many anthems out there; the Olympic medal ceremonies can be a real snoozefest anthem-wise if we don't win, amiright?). But the other force at work on a singer is, you must understand the gravity of the situation. A performance of this song is judged more harshly than possibly any other single event. Everyone’s a critic, everyone feels entitled to criticize. You can’t be too self-indulgent, you can’t mess up the words or be flat or sharp, you can’t stray too far, but you can’t phone it in, either. 

For a moment, we stop and listen and feel something together, sharing the space. That’s why the time is right for protest; the moment is charged with a specific and powerful energy, and it makes sense to leverage that to bring attention to something you feel strongly about; to use the moment to demonstrate your love of your country by drawing attention toward something we can fix, during a moment of profound openness. I’m proud to be a part of that opportunity, just as I am proud to participate in a moment of reverence for the folks singing along. It's a thrilling and terrifying act, worth doing precisely because it's so complex and scary, but also because for the minute and a half when the mic is in my hand, I do feel hopeful that we'll all eventually make it through.

See you at the ballpark!


Here's the whole story, including the third verse, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Here's the original source of the tune, sung at meetings of a weird "gentlemen's club" in late 1700s London:

More perspective:
A New National Anthem, by Ada Limón, 24th Poet Laureate of the United States


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