The year was 1968. I was only 23 years old and had been invited to sing the National Anthem at the fifth game of the World Series in Detroit — the Tigers against the St. Louis Cardinals. Before more than 54,000 fans and countless millions tuned in to televisions and radios around the country, I walked nervously out to left field with my guide dog, Trudy, and my guitar.
I had set out to sing an anthem of gratitude to a country that had given me a chance; that had allowed me, a blind kid from Puerto Rico -- a kid with a dream -- to reach far above my own limitations. I wanted to sing an anthem of praise to a country that had given my family and me a better life than we had had before.
I played it slowly and meaningfully, feeling the vastness of the stadium and the presence of so many people. But before I had finished my performance I could feel the discontent within the waves of cheers and applause that spurred on the first pitch — though I didn’t know what it was about.
Soon afterwards I found out a great controversy was exploding across the country because I had chosen to alter my rendition of the National Anthem to better portray my feelings of gratitude. Veterans, I was being told, had thrown their shoes at the television as I sang; others questioned my right to stay in the United States and still others just attributed it to the times, feeling sad for the state of our country. But thankfully, there were many who understood the depth and breadth of my interpretation. Those, young and old, who weren’t jaded by the negativity that surrounded anything new or different. Yes, it was different but I promise you — it was sincere.
The controversy shadowed me for many years, but I’m thankful I had the opportunity to perform our Anthem in a way that was intensely personal to me, yet still maintained the impact and meaning of our nation’s song. I am also thankful to see that today it is common to hear our National Anthem performed in a stylized fashion and that it is now acceptable, indeed admirable, for a musician to deliver a personal interpretation of our National Anthem.
Listen to the 1968 National Anthem by Jose Feliciano:
Reflection by: Jose Feliciano
Jose is from Connecticut