Saturday, January 29, 2022

Can you hear?

The other day in my Writing Arts Criticism class the students and I listened to a traditional version of "The Star Spangled Banner," trying to hear with fresh ears a song so familiar and unsurprising that it's something like the weather, or our own bodies that we end up taking for granted. Then we listened to several very different covers of the song, among them an acoustic performance by Victory Boyd, Hendrix scorching the earth at Woodstock, and an arrangement in which the full song was transposed to a minor key.

We listened to version each twice. Before we heard Boyd's performance for the second time, we considered the fact that she'd posted her cover to YouTube after she'd been "cancelled" (her word choice) by the NFL; she'd been scheduled, though no contract had been signed, to sing the National Anthem at an opening day game and after she'd disclosed that she'd refused a COVID vaccine shot claiming a religious exemption, the league dropped her appearance. Unbowed, she uploaded her version online "not for the theatrics of a football game" but because "this time I sang for America. To remind her who she is… the land of the free and the home of the brave," adding, "This is dedicated to anyone that has taken a stand for freedom. I stand with you." Learning this, the temperature in the room changed a bit, as my students felt compelled to reassess the hoary, dubious promises embedded in that old anthem, this time sung by an African American woman asking her listeners to consider what rights mean even if they may disagree with her stance.

Hendrix at Woodstock, unsurprisingly, set the room alight. The first time we listened I blanked the screen; the second time we listened we watched Hendrix performing. I'm fairly certain that most of my students know who Hendrix was, or know his name as uttered reverently by their parents, uncles, and aunts, but few had seen the footage. I hadn't myself in years, and was nearly moved to tears watching a black man destroy and reconstruct the national anthem at 8:30 in the morning, his playing hanging loosely from the melody, toying with it, really, before devolving into the hair-lifting sounds of screeching jet fighters, the sound of carpet bombing and the roar of disbelieving and angry resistance caught through a guitar and amplifiers on a farm in upstate New York. Hendrix's intentions, of course, especially at this point in his musical evolution, weren't punk, but the song as he deconstructs it was as pissed off and politically charged as anything the U.S. and U.K. punk bands would sneeringly deliver a decade later. Though overfamiliar, his performance never fails to startle me, but I hadn't realized that I needed a reminder of how thoroughly and thrillingly Hendrix defamiliarized the song, turning it into something frightfully new. I looked around: the students' faces registered amazement, pretty righteous stuff a half century down the line. 


Yet Eoin Sands's minor key rendition might've moved the room even more. Following Hendrix's sonic take-down, Sands's arrangement (titled "Sad Spangled Banner") softened the charged mood in the classroom, as if things had abruptly moved from color to black and white, a trippy sunrise replaced by mournful dusk. After two minutes we all felt that we'd had a crash course in an alternate history of the United States, where this is how the anthem's commonly heard, its regrets and sorrowful disappointments as familiar as the rhymes in the lyrics.  We know what a minor key transposition does theoretically: such a trick can turn an innocent early-60s pop tune into something that sounds strange and wounded. (There are many minor key versions of the anthem online; it seems to have, as it were, struck a chord.) After we listened, I asked the students to get into small groups and discuss and rank the versions, by whatever aesthetic standards they wished. The conversations were terrific and lively, surprising and funny. (My students are exceptionally bright and enthusiastic this semester, and I think they've really  missed the brick-and-mortar classroom.) Nothing really new here, yet by the end of class we had yet another reminder of what sound can do, and how form can affect content so graphically, as if someone had switched off-and-on the lights in the room.


laureanne said...

I wish this essay was longer.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, laureanne!