Perspective: The national anthem doesn’t have to divide us. It can unite us
I sang the national anthem at every ballpark in the Chicago Cubs franchise. Here’s what I learned about America
I’m a singer living in Nashville, Tennessee — Music City, USA. But at age 64, you won’t find me singing at the honky-tonks. You’re much more likely to hear me singing in my church choir or perhaps a ballpark.
That’s because I’ve sung the national anthem in public for 20 years. I even accomplished one of my lifelong dreams: to sing for my beloved Chicago Cubs and nearly 40,000 fans at a packed Wrigley Field.
That single performance turned into multiyear, cross-country quest to sing the anthem at all the ballparks in the Chicago Cubs organization, which I completed in 2018.
Most of my performances were good; a few were really good. But the performances that taught me the most were the ones in which something went wrong.
In Jackson, Tennessee, for example, I was halfway through the song when my mind went blank. I could not think of the next phrase. “Just keep singing,” I told myself, and the words flowed out correctly.
In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I was not in the right mindset before singing, and I ended up repeating one of the first phrases.
But singing in Boise, Idaho, turned out to be my the biggest challenge.
I was there singing for the Boise Hawks, then the Class A (short season) minor league team for the Cubs. As was customary, a staff member turned on the microphone and handed it to me near home plate just as the announcer introduced me.
I blew the starting note on my pitch pipe and started singing, “O say, can you see …” However, I couldn’t hear my voice over the public-address system. The battery in the microphone apparently died.
After a few moments of waiting to see if it could be fixed, I handed the mic back and stepped closer to the stands. “Everyone,” I said, as loudly as I could, “please join me in singing this song together.” I raised my arm as a signal to start the song again, and everyone began singing. Louder and louder, we sang. I could feel the energy spread throughout the ballpark as the crowd sang, finishing with a strong and powerful crescendo.
It was no longer a soloist singing; we were a full-throated choir.
Afterwards, as I walked off the field, the Hawks’ manager reached out and gave me a fist bump. “Way to make something good out of a bad situation,” he said.
That’s what singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” can do — unite everyone in a common purpose. But I think it does more than that.
The theologian and philosopher Augustine of Hippo once wrote a statement that has been translated to read, “The one who sings prays twice.” Whatever I sing, I focus on the lyrics and try to “feel” the song that I’m singing. Knowing the history behind the song also makes the lyrics much more meaningful.
The national anthem, of course, comes from the Francis Scott Key poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Key was a witness to the the bombardment of American forces by the British during the War of 1812 — and the flag still flying proudly above Fort McHenry in Baltimore after a harrowing night. Pay close attention to the lyrics while you’re singing, and you can feel what Key felt when he penned those powerful words. You can feel what I felt that night in Boise, Idaho.
I’ve thought of that moment often over the years, especially when the national anthem is in the spotlight for someone using it as a form of protest. Most recently, San Francisco Giants’ manager Gabe Kapler said he was not comfortable being on the field during the anthem. Staying in the dugout was his way of expressing that he was “not OK with the state of this country” in the aftermath of the mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde and others.
Others, of course, have also objected to the anthem as well, and either knelt or been absent during the singing.
I certainly respect someone’s individual freedom to make a statement, spoken or otherwise, while our national anthem is being played or sung. One is free to sing along, not sing along, not be present for it, take a knee during it, or even raise a closed fist during it. I personally don’t see these actions as disrespectful to our country or our military. They are simply someone’s statement that is guaranteed by our freedom of speech.
However, I think that making a statement during the anthem is a wasted opportunity. Instead, we have the chance to create greater unity in our country by singing the song along with everyone else.
During my many years of singing in a choir, I learned that it takes different voices to make beautiful music. There are sopranos, altos, tenors and bass singers, along with others playing a variety of instruments. Each participant must listen to everyone else involved, and while our individual voice may be singing a different part, it’s the unifying blend that creates the great music.
It is the same in our country, which welcomes to our shores and through our gates people of different races, creeds, genders and political beliefs “yearning to be free.” We each have our own voice, but when we listen to each other and respectfully acknowledge the other voices, we can harmonize and form a more perfect union.
So the next time you are at the stadium, ballpark, or Little League field, don’t just listen — sing along with the national anthem. It’s one more way we can unite as “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Ultimately, we’re all on the same team — even if you don’t cheer for the Cubs.
Christopher Fenoglio is the digital content specialist for Ardent Health Services in Nashville, Tennessee. His inspirational columns have been honored by the Catholic Press Association and the United Methodist Association of Communicators. He is the author of “The Secret of the Santa Box,” an illustrated poem that helps parents talk to their children about the true meaning of Christmas, and videos of his national anthem performances can be seen at www.christopherfenoglio.com.