Saturday, October 24, 2015

Music for Flag Lowering Ceremonies

By Drew Massey

It seems that power struggles these days are frequently mediated by the language of sport. Obama chose not to “spike the football” following Abbottabad; the Gregory Brothers, while better known for “songifying” politics, recently wrote an insightful critique of the choice to hold presidential debates in sporting arenas. I have been thinking about the use of music at flag lowering ceremonies for the last several weeks, and was surprised to find this common thread of sport-as-political-lingua-franca cropping up at certain sonic moments, as well.

I was surprised mainly because there is nothing sporty about the daily ritual of flag lowering at American military bases. A bugle plays retreat, which signals the end of duty and is immediately followed by To The Color, which functions symbolically in place of the National Anthem when no band is available. (Here is an example of the ceremony from 2007, at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea). With music, the flag, and the behavior of all soldiers and civilians in the area prescribed, the tenor of these short solemn ceremonies is thick with symbolism, even by the standards of pageantry and ritual that are such a part of military life. But what happens when similar ceremonies are imbued with a spontaneous meaning, through sound, by a gathered crowd?

Perhaps the most recognized flag lowering ceremony of 2015 was an altogether different tableau, that of the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol building on 10 July 2015 in the aftermath of the murder of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on 17 June 2015. The flag itself was moved to the South Carolina Relic Room and Military Museum. A fact that seems to have been glossed in the heat of the moment was that the 2015 event was the second flag lowering ceremony in South Carolina in the last fifteen years: on 1 July 2000 a confederate flag that had flown over the dome of the capitol since 1962 was brought down while another was raised in the lawn of the Capitol building.

Over the past year finding ways to reduce violence against African Americans and improve race relations have surged as concerns in the national political conversation. Hence the musical details of how these ceremonies unfolded may seem like trifling academic concern, of minor interest but largely irrelevant to the larger societal moment. I would argue (as other musicologists have argued at much greater length, in different circumstances) that focusing on these apparently fleeting moments offers an occasion to contemplate the mental models that give rise to them.

A lengthy film of the 2000 ceremony begins by counting some 20,000 people in attendance, with a sizeable police presence to keep the crowd under control (with mixed results – SWAT teams were eventually called to the scene). At 4:00, the color guard (in civil war garb), plays a drum cadence as formal ceremony ends. “Dixie” can be heard in a disjointed rendition, more bellowed than sung. As the film unfolds, though, the sound world becomes dominated by those protesting the ongoing presence of the confederate flag at the capitol, who create a wall of chillingly shrill sound through the use of whistles while holding yellow signs with SHAME printed across them.

Al Jazeera has what is probably the best (by which I mean most commentary free) footage from the 2015 ceremony. Here the crowd is estimated at 7,000, apparently unified in support for the removal of the flag. The ceremony is strikingly silent at first. At 1:00 there is a brief burst of chanting “USA,” and at 1:48 the crowds erupts in to a spontaneous version of Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Good Bye, the 1970s hit by Steam.

What all three of the flag lowering ceremonies we are considering here – a typical one at an Army base, the one from 2000, and the one from 2015 – have in common is that they each use a collection of highly legible sonic signifiers. A bugle, a cannon, “Dixie,” “USA”, Whistles, “Na Na Hey Hey,” and the drum cadences are all instantly recognizable. And while some of these signifiers can float freely – chanting “USA” can be put to almost any use, at least in demonstrations on American soil – most of these sounds cluster around a set of meanings.

What is most striking to me are the whistles and the use of “Na Na Hey Hey.” Pea whistles were originally designed for use by police but now are used just about anywhere a loud noise is needed cheaply, reliably, and effectively. Which in practice means they are a rather striking sonic marker of violation – of a law, of one’s personal safety, or of a rule in a sporting event. The jarring sound of so many whistles being blown at once during the 2000 protest left little doubt about the whistles’ intended meaning or constellation of meanings.

Yet consider the spontaneous rendition of “Na Na Hey Hey.” This song has virtually faded from the public sphere except for sporting events, where it is frequently trotted out to taunt a losing team (or burned out pitcher) off the field. Despite its decidedly non-athletic origins, it was named the number 12 stadium anthem of all time by Complex magazine. When the whistles from 2000 are heard in this light, it is hard not to hear a sound world in which the world of sport informs the tactics of political action: the whistles are blown by metaphorical referees, calling to level the playing field across racial lines in South Carolina, and by extension, the country. And as for “Na Na Hey Hey’s” appearance in 2015, it is hard to account for its emergence without reference to professional athletics. Even if the singing was begun by a single observer with no real plan, its ratification as a fitting song by the crowd as they join in points to a shared structure of feeling that relies on the rituals of sport as the metaphorical font for interpreting a political sea change.

Any number of conclusions could be drawn if we were to consider these moments at greater length than is practical in a blog post, or even ask how music is used more generally in the renewed movement to address race relations in contemporary America. But even these two examples are a good reminder that music seldom maps directly into political sentiment. Rather, it is mediated through any number of intervening conceptual worlds – professional athletics being just one such example – as part of the process of cultural formation.

Drew Massey is an editor at Musicology Now. His research interests include British and American Music since 1900, and he is currently a partner at Schubertiade Music & Arts.

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