Oh Say Can You See, It Ain't About Me Commentator Bill Harley got a call from the offices of the local minor league team, asking if he wanted to sing the national anthem at a ball game. "Sure," he said, with barely a thought. Then, as the day approached, a whole different set of thoughts and feelings announced themselves.
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Oh Say Can You See, It Ain't About Me

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Oh Say Can You See, It Ain't About Me

Oh Say Can You See, It Ain't About Me

Oh Say Can You See, It Ain't About Me

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/112484915/113944269" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
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An American flag
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I got a call from the offices of the local minor league team, asking if I wanted to sing the national anthem at a ball game. Sure, I said, with barely a thought passing through my little brain — How cool is that? Singing in front of thousands of people at a baseball game. I might even get good seats. For free. That was as far as my thought process went.

As the day approached, a whole different set of thoughts and feelings announced themselves. What was I thinking? Singing a cappella is challenging enough. Singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" is something more. I have an octave-and-a-half range and a little extra, but there's not much room for error — it all depends on starting on the right note. And if you don't, you're halfway through the song before you realize you're going to have some trouble at the end. Big trouble. Without a guitar or piano to remind me of the key, who knows where I'll go. There could be a serious nightmare right at the end of the song. The use of a falsetto voice is something to be avoided in most cases, unless you're Marvin Gaye or Bobby McFerrin. Needless to say, I ain't.

I practiced. In the shower (a good place to practice the national anthem). In the car. Alone. I told my friends I was doing it, and more than one of them said, in a slightly disbelieving tone, "You are?"

"By yourself?" one asked.

So much for support.

The day came. The fans filed in. I stood close to the first base line, wondering what I had gotten myself into, hoping for a reprieve, while they announced the dozens of little league teams there, and the local car dealership sponsoring the summer camps in attendance. It was bat day. Thousands of children swung bats in the air, looking for something to hit. A bad day to do a bad job at the national anthem. "Abuser Of National Anthem Found Beaten To Death With Louisville Sluggers," the headline in my mind read. I kept checking out my starting note, saying under my breath, "Oh say can you see, oh say can you see." A guy from the local television station threw out the first pitch. I could have done that, but no, I was singing the national anthem.

The events manager led me out to right in front of the pitcher's mound. "I can't believe I'm doing this," I said to him, hoping he would volunteer to take over. He chuckled. The announcer asked everyone to rise. They all did. Thousands of them. It's a pretty impressive thing to watch from the pitcher's mound. I think they mentioned my name. I heard one person applaud.

They were all very quiet, waiting for the idiot singer to start, I can tell you that. I was pretty sure I got the first note right — it felt like a G to me. I never know exactly how my voice is going to sound — it sounded pretty good, I thought.

I came to the first test — "the rocket's red glare." I hit that note no problem. It even sounded good. Hey, I sound good, I thought. I can totally do this! I'm doing great!

I relaxed into the song. I could hear more resonance in my voice. It echoed off the grandstands and rolled around the stadium like the wave. The sun was shining, the grass was green, the sky blue, and I was singing the heck out of the "Star-Spangled Banner." Look at me. Look at me. Enjoying myself, I finally looked up at the crowd, ready to take them all in as my beloved audience.

Something was wrong. They weren't looking at me. None of them. Their heads were turned toward the right foul pole. No one was noticing me. What was happening? Someone was stealing my glorious moment! While singing "gave proof through the night," I took a quick peek in the direction everyone was looking.

Something was there all right.

The American flag.

Oh, I thought. It's not about you.

I was invisible, so to speak. And being invisible, I sang a little bit better. I paused before the start of the last line, and someone started to applaud. I nailed the note I'd been worrying about, and stayed on it a moment, reveling in my anonymity.

I finished, and people hooted and hollered. A few people called out to me, applauding my singing. But mostly, I think their applause was about something else.

I walked off the field with a quick bow and a nod. One more bullet dodged. One more lesson learned.

Again.

For the millionth time.

It's not about you. It never is about you.

Bill Harley is a singer and storyteller.