Celebrating July 4th with Jose Feliciano's stylized version of our national anthem

These days, finding pride in being American comes with difficulty.  Tense, toxic, divisive, and disdainful, American culture appears problematic in so many instances. 

As a first-generation American of Mexican descent, I cringe and curse after learning of every injustice under this malignant presidency.

Still, I cannot live life in this America feeling poisoned and powerless.  This July 4th, I’ll look for the good in my homeland. Because, after all, this is my home.

Some of my students have criticized me for saying, “I’m not Mexican.”  They’ve scowled and laughed at me and struggled to understand why I don’t claim my parents’ land. 

Here—my life is here. 

I am an American, a progressive one, an American of Mexican descent, a socially and politically conscious American—a Chicano.  I’m raising my children the same way.

In this country and in this city, I am home.

While I cannot control the politics and toxicity, I can work to create some peace around me.

So on Independence Day, despite the atrocities this 45thpresident promotes and the inequalities he advocates for, I dig my heels in the ground and celebrate the legacy I am in this country and the legacy I work to leave behind.

The national anthem I’ve played on July 4thfor some years is Jose Feliciano’s 1968 stylized version, which he performed at game five of that year’s World Series.  Sung fifty years ago with only a guitar, it remains (according to all the sources I found) the first stylized version of our anthem—even before Jimmy Hendrix’s at Woodstock.

Last year in a NY Times article, Victor Mather described Feliciano as being “quite free with the song’s melody, giving it a slower folk tempo and adding extra syllables and different stresses. What resulted was an anthem that to today’s ears is mellow and expressive.”

But Feliciano’s Latin jazz approach to an American classic drew some boos from the crowd.  One baseball announcer told Feliciano that he created “a commotion” and Feliciano learned that some veterans threw their shoes at their TV sets and cursed the Puerto Rican singer with long hair and dark glasses—glasses he wore because he is blind.  Being Puerto Rican, many people forgot and forget still, means being American.

In an interview earlier this year with Smithsonian.com, Feliciano said, “When I did the anthem, I did it with the understanding in my heart and mind that I did it because I’m a patriot.”  He went on to say, “I was trying to be a grateful patriot. I was expressing my feelings for America when I did the anthem my way instead of just singing it with an orchestra.”

Feliciano explained that after the controversy, many radio stations stopped playing any of his music.

I play his version of our anthem each time I need to reclaim my faith in the promise of this country. The sweeping melody that moves like a breeze making our flag rise and flap moves me. 

Sometimes I just listen to his voice. Sometimes, I just listen to the strings.

But every July 4th, I listen.

This stylized version of our national anthem is freedom—and I respect Feliciano’s artistic freedom to perform it his way.  And I respect those who protest their way when they take a knee. 

When I hear our anthem, I stand, remove my hat, and hold it over my heart.

And in those couple of minutes, I think about what I’ve done or what I can do to make my homeland a better place during these ugly times.

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