In 1968, in that turbulent year that saw Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinated and war protesters rioting in the streets, there was a controversial incident at the 1968 World Series. It seems so minor in the scale of retrospection but I find it very interesting and symbolic of how we as a people resist the inevitability of change.
In October of 1968, the musician Jose Feliciano was asked by legendary Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell to perform the National Anthem a before one of the World Series games in Detroit between the Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Feliciano performed a slow and slightly jazzy version, much in the style for which he was known. Little did he know, it inspired a storm of controversy.
This was before anyone had performed stylized versions of the song, before the crashing fury of Hendrix’ version or any of the myriad other versions since. It is said that World War II vets were throwing their shoes at their televisions and the network switchboards were swamped with angry calls. Soon, many radio stations refused to play Feliciano’s music altogether and his career went into a tailspin that took three years for him to overcome.
When I hear the version now, I am mystified by the reaction of the time. It is a respectful and lovely version, perhaps not as bombastic or as confident as some like in their national anthem. And certainly not as ridiculous and disrespectful as some versions since. But we were a country in turmoil and our confidence was surely shaken by all that was happening around us. The world seemed to be changing every day and in ways that seemed out of the control of the average person.
Much like today.
Here are two short videos. The first is Jose Feliciano telling the story and the second is the recording of that performance from 1968. Tell me this isn’t a beautiful version of the song.