A few nights ago we happened to catch the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, featuring some diva plodding through the Canadian national anthem, “O Canada,” at such a mournfully slow tempo as to make it an even unhappier dirge than usual.
It put me in mind of my old friend Bob Wright who, along with his partner, Carol Hoheisel, was a pioneer in the free paper business, publishing the Morrison County Record up in Little Falls, Minnesota, for many years. Bob possessed an unusually fine tenor voice, and was regularly called upon to sing the U.S. national anthem to begin our state meetings, and at the Independent Free Papers of America gatherings, “O Canada,” also, to honor our members from north of the 49th parallel. He always rendered the Canadian anthem at a brisk march tempo which, if it did little to perk up the old dog, at least got it done quicker.
Bob’s efforts always helped to lend a little dignity to our gatherings before they dissolved into the usual loud hilarity of conventions and generally, before the night was over, he would give us a particularly heart-rending performance of “Danny Boy,” and after midnight on Saturday night, “How Great Thou Art,” for those of us who might not be making it to church in the morning.
Bob, alas, did not take particularly good care of his health and died younger than he might have, much to the rue of his many friends. So on a sad day we trooped north to Little Falls to attend his funeral, held in the grandest cathedral in the area (Bob was a deathbed convert to Roman Catholicism). There he was laid to rest amid great pomp, ceremony, and...Bob!...booming out recorded versions of his two great favorites, “Danny Boy” and “How Great Thou Art.” How he ever got the priests to agree to the performance, at a funeral Mass, of the secular Irish tear-jerker and stout old Protestant anthem, I’ll never know. Apparently you might strike a bargain for your soul with someone other than the devil.
No doubt, it was a combination of vanity and his mordant sense of humor that gave Bob the idea of singing at his own funeral. He would without doubt have been convinced that there was no other tenor living amid the jack pines of central Minnesota worthy of singing him to his rest. And he also surely calculated that the sound of him singing from beyond the bourne at his own funeral would creep out his friends so thoroughly that they’d never forget it (I know I haven’t).
Now, while taken up with the memory of my old friend and great vocalist, I would like to suggest, apropos of nothing else, that our old clunker, the unsingable “Star Spangled Banner,” whose lyrics no longer ring true if they ever did, should be abandoned. In its place I would suggest “America the Beautiful,” a song of far lovelier melody and nobler sentiment. Anyone who needs convincing should consult the Ray Charles version of it.
And as for the Canadians, if they aspire to nothing better than “O Canada,” let it continue as the appropriate opener for many a boring event up there.