Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on March, 25, 2009, the day of the National Anthem tryouts at Five County Stadium.
Spring was just a day old, and perfect for hitting. A brisk northerly breeze charged toward right field, and if you were a batter at home plate and a hanging curve ball happened to come your way, dangling deliciously over the outside corner, you, with a gentle snap of the wrists, could not so much as smack the ball as goose it, and let the wind do the work, let the ball ride the updraft and sail into the $5 seats.
But before there can be batting, there must be singing.
That morning at Five County Stadium in Zebulon, home of the Carolina Mudcats, the Double-A farm club for the Cincinnati Reds, spring was shaking off its husk of frost. About 40 people, some bundled in winter coats, others clad in shorts and T-shirts, huddled near the dugout waiting to audition for the honor to sing the national anthem before Mudcats home games. Of the contestants, only a few would be chosen to rotate over the five-month season. Some clutched pieces of paper on which they had written the anthem’s words. Others paced and left anxious footprints in the pebbly clay.
A lone microphone stood several feet behind home plate. One by one, the singers—and an ambitious trumpet player—faced thousands of empty red seats, the green expanse of the outfield and the clay halo of the pitching mound. Perhaps the only time anyone would feel more alone is when he or she is dying.
Unlike many music stars performing on television, the contestants sang a cappella. There was no accompaniment to soften a sharp note, no recorded track with which they could lip sync. This was their voice, raw as the morning chill.
In A-flat or B-flat, the modern arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” is incredibly difficult to sing, with the vocal range spanning 18 notes—an octave and a half. The original melody, written in G Major, is easier to belt out, probably because it was intended to be sung while, if not drunk, then at least drinking.
Francis Scott Key, inspired by the British attack on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, married his lyrics to the tune of an old British drinking song, “The Anacreontic Song,” written by John Stafford Smith. So, armed with a melody intended to be crooned in warm, cozy bars, it is unlikely that Key imagined his wartime composition would be sung in large stadiums where, like a musket round, the sound of a singer’s voice barrels through a speaker system and ricochets off concrete walls, hard plastic seats and a metal grandstand overhang, before returning, garbled, to the person standing alone at the microphone, flying in one ear and out the other, a clean shot through and through.
But those difficulties did not deter these hopefuls from tackling the world’s best drinking song or the what may be the world’s hardest national anthem. There were timid, high voices of children, who you could imagine had practiced earnestly in front of their parents or privately in their bedrooms. There were booming baritones of men who heaved notes from deep in their strike zones. There were thready sopranos of women, several of whom sang with a reverence reserved for church hymns. Some voices were as soulful as Motown; others were obsessed with the melisma unfortunately made popular by American Idol, in which the vocals squirm around the root note but never go anywhere, like a baserunner trying to avoid a tag.
One person forgot the words—twice—and did not finish. A man removed his cap before he sang, out of respect, and likewise, a woman placed her hand over heart.
In the seats behind home plate, judges listened to each of the 40-some versions of the national anthem. On one contestant’s sheet, a judge wrote “good emotion; too many riffs.” Even after nearly two hours, their attention did not flag.