On September 14, 1814, so says The Smithsonian Institute, U.S. soldiers at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry raised a huge American flag to celebrate a crucial victory over British forces during the War of 1812. The sight of those “broad stripes and bright stars” inspired Francis Scott Key to write a song that eventually became the United States national anthem. Key’s words gave new significance to a national symbol and started a tradition through which generations of Americans have invested the flag with their own meanings and memories.
Jose Feliciano is today, and perhaps will be for a long time, intimately connected with this American emblem, which next month, will ‘celebrate’ its 200th birthday. Jose is already being interviewed extensively because of his partication over 40 years ago when he unintentionally caused a commotion by being the very first individual to publicly reinterpret the National Anthem…his personal recollections follow:
“The year was 1968. I was only 23 years old and had been invited to sing the National Anthem at the fifth game of the World Series in Detroit — the Tigers against the St. Louis Cardinals. Before more than 54,000 fans and countless millions tuned in to televisions and radios around the country, I walked nervously out to left field with my guide dog, Trudy, and my guitar.
“I had set out to sing an anthem of gratitude to a country that had given me a chance; that had allowed me, a blind kid from Puerto Rico — a kid with a dream — to reach far above my own limitations. I wanted to sing an anthem of praise to a country that had given my family and me a better life than we had had before.
“I played it slowly and meaningfully, feeling the vastness of the stadium and the presence of so many people. But before I had finished my performance I could feel the discontent within the waves of cheers and applause that spurred on the first pitch — though I didn’t know what it was about.
“Soon afterwards I found out a great controversy was exploding across the country because I had chosen to alter my rendition of the National Anthem to better portray my feelings of gratitude. Veterans, I was being told, had thrown their shoes at the television as I sang; others questioned my right to stay in the United States and still others just attributed it to the times, feeling sad for the state of our country. But thankfully, there were many who understood the depth and breadth of my interpretation. Those, young and old, who weren’t jaded by the negativity that surrounded anything new or different. Yes, it was different but I promise you — it was sincere.
“The controversy shadowed me for many years, but I’m thankful I had the opportunity to perform our Anthem in a way that was intensely personal to me, yet still maintained the impact and meaning of our nation’s song. I am also thankful to see that today it is common to hear our National Anthem performed in a stylized fashion and that it is now acceptable, indeed admirable, for a musician to deliver a personal interpretation of our National Anthem.”
Not only was Jose Feliciano’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner on the American music charts, the first time ever for the U.S. National Anthem, but it is on permanent exhibit in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Imagine, Jose made it to Cooperstown!