Tony Bennett, the National Anthem and “America the Beautiful”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

After playing Tony Bennett’s record, Rags To Riches, on his XM radio show, Bob Dylan said, “I heard a story once about Tony. They wanted him to sing the national anthem at the nineteen and sixty-one Preakness. He didn’t want to. He said, ‘I don’t know. Bombs burstin’ in air are just not my thing.’” Dylan commented, “Way to go, Tony.”

That’s not exactly the comment I’d have made, but then it’s Bob’s show, and when I have my own XM Radio show, maybe I’ll pay a different kind of tribute to Tony — who I do think is one of the greatest singers of our era.

The question is, what is this thing with Tony Bennett and the national anthem all about? Like most things, it benefits from a little consideration.

The Star Spangled Banner was adopted as the national anthem of the United States in 1931. The lyric was famously written by Francis Scott Key on witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British during the War of 1812. The tune is from an old British drinking song called To Anacreon in Heaven. It is widely considered to be a very difficult song to sing well. It’s never been entirely embraced as the best possible national anthem, in some cases due to its musical awkwardness, and in others due to the song’s preoccupation with battle — neglecting other aspects of what America stands for, in some people’s minds. Alternatives have been proposed, most particularly the song America the Beautiful (lyric by Katherine Lee Bates, tune from a hymn by Samuel A. Ward). Irving Berlin’s God Bless America is also favored by some. No less than President Harry Truman once said (after he was out of office), “I don’t give a damn about ‘The Missouri Waltz’ but I can’t say it out loud because it’s the song of Missouri. It’s as bad as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ so far as music is concerned.”

I’m not familiar with the story of Tony Bennett and his invitation to sing the national anthem at the 1961 Preakness Stakes horse racing event, but then, Bob’s a little older than I am. However, Tony Bennett has on at least one occasion — and I suspect more — sung America The Beautiful in place of The Star Spangled Banner.

The one time I know he definitely did so was in 1998, at the first game of baseball’s World Series between the Yankees and the Padres, because I was watching it live on television. Shortly afterwards, he was interviewed by Scott Simon of NPR and explained himself like this:

Q: You sang the first game of the World Series the other night, here in New York, Yankees against the Padres. You did not sing what we think of as the national anthem. Instead you sang “America the Beautiful.”

TONY BENNETT: Yeah, well, I’m not being unpatriotic, but I dislike that song — the national anthem. See, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, they were crafty enough to–if you hit an E at the very top of the range, you know, when you’re hitting a high C, if you’re hitting a high E, it’s a terrible sound. You know? It’s like your fingernails scraping on the blackboard or something, or glass or something. And it just makes your skin crawl. And it breaks me up whenever–(sings) ‘And the land of the free.’ It’s just–it closes your vocal chords, you know? But the master composers, they know how to write songs like (sings) ‘I love you’–you know, they–and a nice vowel sound, an ‘ah’ sound and an ‘oh’ sound on the top. But “America the Beautiful” is what I dream about America. It’s the great experiment. It’s the greatest country you could ever live in, because it’s every nationality. It’s not just one philosophy; it’s every philosophy.

Q: Now did anyone say to you, ‘Look, Mr. Bennett, this is the World Series. Everybody sings the national anthem’?

TONY BENNETT: I’d just say, ‘Have someone else do it.’ They just agreed to have me sing it.

Q: And the Yankees won, so everything worked.

TONY BENNETT: They won, yeah.

Q: Everything worked out well.

TONY BENNETT: Something worked.

If there’s one overriding theme of Tony Bennett’s career, it’s that he doesn’t like to sing songs he doesn’t like. He went through some kind of hell in the 1950s and especially the 1960s, with Mitch Miller and various other Columbia Records honchos constantly trying to browbeat him into singing novelty songs or rock songs. Occasionally they succeeded in forcing him to do so, but the pain it caused him is all over his 1998 autobiography, “The Good Life.” At one point in that book he remembers what happened when Clive Davis took over Columbia in 1966:

He took a trip to the Monterey Pop Music Festival in 1967, and when he returned he traded in his Brooks Brothers suits for Nehru jackets and love beads and signed Janis Joplin. He began to insist that all his artists record rock and roll tunes and was convinced that nothing else would sell. At one point he was even trying to convince Barbra Streisand to record an album of Bob Dylan tunes. The whole thing was ridiculous and resulted in chaos for most of Columbia’s top-selling artists.

Except for Bob Dylan himself, one supposes. (Though, there was that Self Portrait album. Was it Clive Davis who made Dylan record Blue Moon? At the same time as he was trying to get Streisand to sing Obviously Five Believers?) (Do I have to say that I’m only kidding?)

Coincidentally, there was a feature on Tony Bennett in the most recent “Parade” magazine, of July 30th, 2006, which gets distributed with many Americans’ Sunday newspapers. Again, the subject of Bennett’s visceral relationship to the songs he interprets comes up.

Bennett got pushed into recording an album called Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today!
with ill-fitting tunes such as “Eleanor Rigby.” It so bothered him that he got physically sick while making it. “To this day, if I had my druthers, I would take it out of my catalog.”

Refusing to go that route again eventually cost him a record label.

So, we should get the message that Tony just isn’t gonna sing a song for which he doesn’t have affection. It’s tied into his artistic identity and integrity — an integrity that has served him well over the long haul. And for which he’s earned respect. It’s something that another veteran performer like Bob Dylan would appreciate. He doesn’t sing songs he doesn’t like, either.

However — let’s be honest — there’s more to it than just a purely musical preference, when it comes to Tony Bennett and The Star Spangled Banner. As quoted by Dylan, he said “Bombs burstin’ in air are just not my thing.” Why does the fact that the song describes a battle disturb Bennett so much?
Well, if Tony Bennett is a pacifist — not that he’s used that label to my knowledge — he is at least no armchair pacifist. Tony fought in World War II, being drafted at age eighteen in 1944. He tells the story in that same autobiography, “The Good Life,” and, for Tony, it’s not a pretty one. From basic training on, it was sheer misery; physical, spiritual and otherwise.

They called it “good training,” but from what I could tell it was really an opportunity for officers to brutalize us and break our spirit. They treated us like animals. I began to have a really hard time with the whole military philosophy. From top to bottom, it went against everything I believed in.

Bennett writes about the bigotry he encountered in the army of that era as an Italian-American, and the worse bigotry he witnessed Jews and blacks having to endure.

But all that was nothing compared to the horror of the actual fighting in Europe.

The winter months were rough. Snow covered the ground, and the front was a front-row seat in hell. It was an absolutely terrifying spectacle: air battles raging above me, with the roar of the airplane engines and the swirling sound of bombs; and artillery battles all around me, with shells bursting everywhere. I watched as my buddies died right before my eyes. All I could think of was, “When am I gonna get it?” No less than General Patton once woke us up at four AM and gave us a speech, saying: “Now listen up! Forget your mothers and everything else you’ve ever known! You’re going up to the line.” That was because we were all just teenagers, kids really. Can you imagine saying that — “Forget your mothers!” — to a bunch of terrified kids?

You have to respect Tony, in his book, for not trying to make himself look like any kind of brave soldier. Quite the opposite

Incredibly, there were some guys who actually enjoyed the war. There was one private who couldn’t wait to kill Germans. He just lived to fight and kill. The rest of us would be completely exhausted from fighting all day, and he’d say, “I want this war to end sooner than later, so you guys stay here, I’m going out!” It was really spooky. We’d all look at one another and say, “What’s with this guy?” He used to take his BAR [Browning automatic rifle] and go out looking for soldiers in trees. We all tried to stay away from him as much as possible.

Bennett sums up his war experience thusly:

The main thing I got out of my military experience was the realization that I am completely opposed to war. Every war is insane, no matter where it is or what it’s about. Fighting is the lowest form of human behavior.

In the end, it would be difficult to disagree with any of that, but I would just have to add this: Even so, when things reach a certain point, the only thing worse than going to war is to stand by passively while an enemy brutalizes the innocent and threatens your own loved ones and countrymen.

Bob Dylan himself, talking about how people persistently misinterpret his song Masters of War, once put it this way:

I’m not a pacifist. I don’t think I’ve ever been one. If you look closely at the song, it’s about what Eisenhower was saying about the dangers of the military-industrial complex in this country. I believe strongly in everyone’s right to defend themselves by every means necessary . . .

Tony himself delivers the best kind of answer to those who say “war never solved anything” (although he himself doesn’t characterize it as the answer to that) in his book. It’s this passage:

It was gratifying that the last official mission of the 255th Regiment was the liberation of the concentration camp in the town of Landsberg. It was thirty miles south of the notorious Dachau camp, on the opposite bank of the Lech River, which we were approaching. The river was treacherous and difficult to cross because there were still German soldiers protecting it, but we wouldn’t let anyone stop us from freeing those prisoners. Many writers have recorded what it was like in the concentration camps much more eloquently than I ever could, so I won’t even try to describe it. Just let me say I’ll never forget the desperate faces and empty stares of the prisoners as they wandered aimlessly around the campgrounds. Once we took possession of the camp, we immediately got food and water to the survivors, but they had been brutalized for so long that at first they couldn’t believe that we were there to help them and not to kill them. Many of the survivors were barely able to stand. To our horror we discovered that all of the women and children had been killed long before our arrival and that just the day before, half of the remaining survivors had been shot … The whole thing was beyond comprehension. After seeing such horrors with my very eyes, it angers me that some people insist there were no concentration camps.

So, next time you hear Tony Bennett crooning a cheerful song on the radio, remember that 18 or 19 year-old kid who was there when it counted, and who, despite his terror, helped free those concentration camp victims, and helped put an end to the Nazis and to World War II.

Way to go, Tony.

* * *

And just for the record: this scribe is more than happy to sing the U.S. national anthem, whatever it happens to be. Super Bowl event planners take note.