Musical Cultural Context and a Cubs Game

2011Symposium_1_2One of the items on my “bucket list” has been to go to a baseball game at Wrigley Field in Chicago. I am a lifelong Red Sox fan, but I have a deep appreciation for all teams with a long history and tradition, and Wrigley certainly fits into that category. Being a musician, the extensive use of music found in the fabric of those traditions was not lost on me as I oohed over and ivy covered wall, a mechanical scoreboard, and the historic and iconic sign that greets visitors over the main entrance to the ballpark. Standing on the sidewalk outside, I could hear the organ being played. I heard old—very old—tunes. It reminded me of visiting Fenway Park as a kid, hearing John Kiley play the organ there before and during the games. The sound of Gary Pressy playing the Wrigley Hammond organ, something he’s been doing for 27 years, set the tone for a day of good old baseball tradition. The Cubs were the first team to have organ music at their ballpark, so hearing that organ at Wrigley is special.

As the game was about to get under way, a second musical ritual was performed; the singing of the national anthem of the United States of America. The first time the Star-Spangled Banner was sung during at a baseball game was during the seventh inning stretch of the first game of the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. That game took place at Comiskey Park, chosen for the series because of the larger seating capacity; so Chicago and a Cubs game was the location of the first singing of the national anthem at a major league baseball game. Incidentally, the home of the Cubs then was their current ball field, but it was then called Weeghman Park. At Wrigley on Tuesday, when the anthem was begun, everyone stopped, removed their hats, and turned to the field. Everyone did this: people in the walkways, people at the food concessions, people in their seats. It was what it should always be—a respectful pause to honor our country and those who defend it in the armed forces. It serves to remind a busy population that freedom still matters, and should be appreciated before the entertainment begins. The rendition offered was by a barbershop quartet, and it was also what it should always be—tasteful, artistically well done, and respectful of the anthem, not a glorification of the performer. At Wrigley, I had the added thrill of singing the national anthem in the town where this tradition began.

Then there is arguably the greatest musical tradition in all of sports—singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch at Wrigley Field. This tradition was made famous by the legendary Harry Caray during his sixteen years as a Cubs broadcast announcer. Nowadays, a guest celebrity leads the song. On Tuesday, when I was there, Sting of Chicago led the crowd, accompanied by Pressy’s organ. I belted it out with the rest of the Cubs fans, in a celebration of joyous and charmingly off-key community singing. It was great.

The Cubs won the game that day; a 3-0 shutout of division foe Milwaukee. When the game was over, there was still one more musical ceremony to perform—the singing of the Cubs theme song, “Go Cubs Go.” The hearty belting of 28,000 fans to this campy anthem was just the right way to celebrate the Cubs victory, and gave the fans a way to participate in the celebration beyond watching their team high-five each other on the field. When you come down to it, that’s really what all of this music is about. It gives the fans a way to participate beyond being spectators and cheering the players on. It gives the fans something to do that is uniquely theirs.

Whether it’s “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” the familiar strains of the organ, or the franchise theme song, these things do not succeed off of what the players do, they succeed because of what the fans do. What’s more, they identify Cubs fans by the doing of it. That is, no other fans but Cubs fans sing “Go Cubs Go,” and when fans in other parks sing “Take Me Out To the Ballgame,” it just isn’t the same. Cubs fans own that experience in a way no one else does. That is what good musical traditions should do; the music should connect the people with the culture—in this case Cubs culture.

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